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The Globe & Mail (Canada)

A Little Nordic Sanity: Actually Doing What You Say

I squandered a chunk of my life this week watching U.S. congressional hearings on "progress" in Iraq, and media follow-ups. In case you didn't waste your own time, let me share some of my loss.

There are supposedly two sides, for and against the war. Yet they sound the same. California Democrat Tom Lantos, who's against the war, started the hearings by saying "our" strategy is building national institutions and seeking "a political settlement."

A "Republican strategist" asked, in The New York Times, "How do we get to political stability?" Pro-war Senator John McCain, on the Straight Talk Express, his campaign bus, said "if we leave, there will be chaos and genocide." It's all about the good of the poor Iraqis.

But what evidence is there that any of them ever had those interests at heart? U.S. policy egged Iraq into eight years of bloody war with Iran. Then Washington applied a decade of sanctions that sapped ordinary life and ensconced Saddam Hussein. And now this occupation. Suddenly they care? U.S. policy-makers have other motives and Iraqis know it.

Forty-six per cent, by this week's polling, think civil war would be less likely if the U.S. just got out, chaos or not; only 35 per cent think it's more likely. Seventy-nine per cent of Sunnis and 59 per cent of Shiites have no confidence in U.S. and British forces. They don't take the benevolent talk seriously-why should anyone?

Or take troop withdrawals. What troop withdrawals? Presidential candidate Barack Obama, staking an extreme anti-war position, says he'd withdraw all troops but leave a force of unspecified size "to strike at terrorists, train Iraqi soldiers and protect American interests."

Huh? Isn't that what they're doing now? That's a stay, not a leave. How is it different from the Bush position? What makes him think, perhaps correctly, that no one will notice? Is it because this is the fantasy realm of foreign policy?

The only time my eyes unglazed during the hearings came when the Code Pink protesters stood on their chairs screaming "liar" until they were ejected under the stony gaze of the (anti-war) chairman. They were reacting rationally, even if they were frantic. It was probably unavoidable. They were trying to tell the truth in a sea of nodding liars.

Why is foreign policy such a swamp of deceit and inanity? Is it because in domestic matters, people have benchmarks by which to judge? If you're told the economy is great, you can check it against your bank account or job; the same goes for schools and ERs.

That isn't the case in foreign affairs, so the mythology flows freely. Canada is not exempt. We said we'd devote 0.7 per cent of GDP to foreign aid, then turned around and said we wouldn't. We use the typical bilge as reasons for joining the occupation of Afghanistan: achieve stability, build national institutions.

But Wednesday, I watched Adrienne Arsenault's report on CBC news from Sweden. They've taken 30,000 refugees from Iraq and will add 20,000 this year. Canada took fewer than 400 last year, and plans 1,400 this year. The city of 80,000 she reported from took in twice as many Iraqis as the whole United States. They get health care, language classes, income support.

Wait, this doesn't fit the mould. It isn't grandiloquent talk, it's action. They seem to mean what they say, as do other Scandinavian countries. If foreign policy is a crock, a cover for self-interest, how do they pull this off?

Is it their relative marginality, strung across the top of Europe, that has kept them somewhat immune from great power politics? The general absence of an imperial past? Their social-democratic heritage, through which they built fairly egalitarian societies and didn't have to justify or deny cruel disparities? Absence of racism? I wish I knew.

They are oddly like Canada, those places. You fly endless hours and get off the plane in Helsinki and feel you never went anywhere because it looks like home. But not in foreign policy.

This is the world we live in. This is the world we cover.

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Rick Salutin

Rick Salutin

Rick Salutin is a Canadian novelist, playwright, journalist, and critic and has been writing for more than forty years. Until October 1, 2010, he wrote a regular column in the Globe and Mail; on February 11, 2011, he began a weekly column in the Toronto Star.

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