Monthly Archives: February 2015

Putting the Propaganda Cart before the Foreign Policy Horse

A Letter to Larry Miller, MP for Bruce-Grey-Owen Sound

Good morning MP Larry,

I am writing to protest about the public face that the Government, and the Prime Minister in particular, is putting on Canadian foreign policy in four distinct areas: Ukraine-Russia, Iran, Iraq-Syria (“ISIS”), and Israel-Palestine. I am prepared to find that the actual policy is more complex than than the public face, but the public face is what we are allowed to see.

I am particularly concerned that the propaganda forming much of the public face has started to drive the policy, rather than the other way around.

Let me explain how I think this works. I am assuming that the affairs of most countries, and our relationship with them, admits of very substantial and important patches of grey, that such matters are very seldom black and white. I can believe that most competent governments start by working intelligently with the grey. I believe, however, that for reasons that it thought sufficient, the present Canadian government began to tilt towards a more black-white world view. In order to sell that approach to the Canadian public, it began to paint the view somewhat more black and white than it could possibly be. At some point, in this process, it crossed the line between explanation of policy, which is legitimate, and propaganda, which is not. That was the first mistake. Then the second was to start believing its own propaganda, and tailoring the policy to conform to it.

In one case—Iraq-Syria (ISIS), we are now tailoring domestic policy in order to match the propaganda driving our foreign policy. I refer to the recent proposal to expand the powers of our security agencies, who operate under entirely inadequate parliamentary oversight—and please don’t try to tell me that non-parliamentary oversight is just as good, because it is not, for obvious democratic reasons. The truth, in fact, appears to be that our security forces are doing very well with the powers they have now. I do not believe that the kind of attacks we have experienced can be prevented by expanding the powers of security agencies. They were not the right kind of attack for that. They were carried out by disturbed individuals acting alone, and the answer to that, to the extent that there is one, lies in improvements to our mental health system, not in more vigilant policing. And preventive policing is a very dubious concept indeed, under our constitution, in any circumstances.

But I am straying from my  main point, which is the Government, with the enthusiastic encouragement of Mr. Harper and Mr. Baird, has tipped over the propaganda cliff and is falling faster and faster into the black-white void where intelligent understanding of complex situations and careful diplomacy are no longer allowed to operate. Let me be specific:

Ukraine-Russia: Here we have a small country and nascent democracy whose history with its much larger neighbour is long and troubled, and having its own difficult ethnic divide between west and east, and where every nuance of the situation is washed in grey, and we have decided that for our purposes the previous elected government was black; that the demonstrators and their armed assistants who overthrew that government were white; that the pro-Russian people in the east and the south are not entitled to their point of view and that the Russian government is very black indeed for supporting them; that Russia is not entitled to express any strategic interest in its neighbouring country; and that the only just solution to the problem is the one that happens to serve the strategic interests of the United States, at least as aging and emerging Cold Warriors might choose to define them.

Do we think that the United States has no valid strategic interest in us, or in Mexico? I bet we do not think that, and I am sure the United States does not think so either. Small countries who live beside big ones and who also want to reach out into the wider world must balance their policies carefully, as we have learned to do in 150 years. We have also learned much, starting even further back, about the sensible conduct of a country with an ethnic divide. Ukraine is a new democracy. Surely our contribution to them should be to pass on what we have learned and to support them in a balanced policy. Climbing on the black-white bandwagon does not do that.

Iran: I am not sure what is driving our policy towards Iran. It cannot be our own strategic interests, or any principle except possibly nuclear non-proliferation, a principle about which we have shown considerable flexibility in the past. Certainly it shows little knowledge of or regard for the history of that country, its strategic interests, or its complex relationships with its neighbours. I think perhaps that the Government thinks it is showing support for Israel. Israel has nothing to fear from healthy bilateral relations between its friends and Iran, and much to fear, in the long term, from its own unhealthy bilateral relations with that influential country. A more sophisticated policy on our part could do much to serve the interests of the whole Middle East, and the rest of the world.

Iraq-Syria (ISIS): Here we see the Government’s propaganda machine in full cry these days, with the Prime Minister’s minatory warnings about “violent jihadism”. That kind of language is pure propaganda, and it bothers me to hear our Prime Minister using it. I agree that ISIS shows no sign of being the kind of government that we like to see, but the same could be said for Syria, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and a host of other governments, including all the autocratic ones. Iraq and Syria were blatantly the creations of oil-seeking imperialism in 1919, and have proved themselves ungovernable except by brutal repression. I think that an indigenous effort to create a new state out of the mess should at least be studied carefully before it is judged, and in judging we should use the same standards as we apply to other autocratic Islamic states. And we should avoid taking sides in any Sunni-Shia conflicts. The legacy of western imperialism in the Middle East is a tangled one, which must be sorted out locally.

Israel-Palestine: I have written to you before with my concerns about the one-sidedness of our policy towards this conflict. Of course Mr. Baird was correct to say that the matter can be solved only by negotiation, which is obviously in the best interests of both sides. The problem is that the two parties are so grotesquely out of balance in their military and economic strengths that any suggestion of fair negotiation is absurd. The Israelis are unenthusiastic about negotiation because they think they can go along very well without it. And the Palestinians are unenthusiastic because they know that under the present imbalance they are going to be on the losing end. I think that our diplomacy therefore has to be extremely sensitive in the pursuit of what is in our interest, and everybody’s interest, which is a balanced negotiating environment leading to a settlement.

It cannot be in Israel’s long-term or even medium-term interest to be so thoroughly hated by its neighbours. How can the country survive forever, which is what we would want it to do, in the face of that hatred?

In conclusion, I think that the departure of the belligerent Mr. Baird gives us an opportunity for a thorough review of our foreign policy, in pursuit of a balanced approach in all parts of the world, an approach that is not driven by our own or other people’s propaganda, and which does not have to be sold by means of propaganda. Our population is well educated and could, with proper presentation, become complexly informed. The present propaganda-driven approach can thrive only if the Canadian people are deliberately kept uninformed and worked upon. Surely that would be bad policy in any field.

No black hats, no white hats, just grey hats, a humane understanding of people’s circumstances and difficulties, and a lot of diplomatic skill and patience.

Sorry this is so long, and thank you for your attention. I hope that you are wintering well, and in good health.

Warm regards,

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Excursing in the Public Realm

This morning I set forth to the village of Lion’s Head, to run some errands and spend the fruits of my pensions, provided (old age pension), administered (Canada Pension Plan), or enabled (RRSP) by the people of Canada, through their government. Before I even left the house, therefore, my journey was already anchored in public services.

I turned out of my driveway onto the road, ploughed, also constructed and maintained, by the Municipality of Northern Bruce Peninsula, in which I reside. I paused to check for mail, brought to me through the efforts of a chain of public servants employed by a Crown Corporation, Canada Post, delivered to my rural box by the last links in the chain, who are also a couple of my neighbours.

At the end of my road I turned onto a highway constructed, recently re-paved and maintained by contractors hired by the Province of Ontario, and then onto a road similarly provided by the County of Bruce. Along the way I passed an ambulance, speeding to some emergency, and a member of the Ontario Provincial Police, on patrol for malefactors, hazards to public security, or people in need, both these vehicles and their personnel being provided by a collaborative arrangement among levels of government the exact details of which escape me.

When I got to Ferndale I stopped at the recycling depot, another municipal service, and then on to the Lion’s Head Public Library, a service of the County. The bank where I went for some cash is a public company, sternly regulated by the Government of Canada to ensure it remains solvent for my benefit and reasonably honest in its dealings. The local grocery store is a private enterprise, of course, but I was aware that I could read lists of ingredients on labels, and rest reasonably assured that my groceries were bug-free, not only because my grocer runs a clean operation, but also due to the efforts of regulators and inspectors perhaps both federal and provincial, and had been washed in clean water from the new water treatment plant operated by the Municipality and paid for by three levels of government.

Passing the school, of the kind that served me and my children so well in the past and continues to serve my hopes for the future, I stopped at the hospital where I left a sample of blood, skillfully drawn in a public hospital by a public person, in response to the prescription of a doctor working in a public medical system. I visited the drug store to collect some pills and left without paying a dime, thanks to the Provincial pill-paying provision for people my age, topped up by my own medical insurance.

My last errand took me to the Liquor Store, a service of the Government of Ontario, perhaps not essential but certainly convenient and lucrative.

I drove home thinking how irritated I would be when, sometime in June, some band of tunnel-visioned pin-heads would assure me that I should rejoice because we had arrived at “tax freedom day”.

I write this little travelogue not only to celebrate our wealth of public services, for which we must pay if we wish to maintain their quality and allow them their just measure of improvement, but to remind you that our “government” does not consist in the petty and partisan bickering of our legislators and their henchmen, followed so obsessively by our news media, but in the skilled work of legions of our neighbours and the thousands upon thousands of operations and transactions in which they engage every day for our benefit. And because we are a democracy we can be reasonably assured that they are working for our benefit, and not for the benefit of some authoritarian power. If we think they are not we can do something about it.

Such being the case, to speak and act as if our government as a burden which we are obliged to support whether we like it or not constitutes wilful self-deception. Tax freedom day forsooth! Of course we want our public services to be efficient and not wasteful. But most of all we want them to be there when we need them.