Published on
the Toronto Star/Canada

What Obama and Dion Should Be Talking About

Haroon Siddiqui

International issues are increasingly domestic, as the death of three more Canadian soldiers in Afghanistan tragically testifies.

On the eve of the U.S. Democratic and Republican conventions and what might also be the eve of an election in Canada, as Stephen Harper tries to break his own law on a fixed election date, it is useful to survey the world as it pertains to us.

Two years ago, writing about the militarization of Afghanistan and the Americanization of our mission there, I said:

“The scum were to be squished. We were in Afghanistan to kill the Taliban. It was a matter of our survival; if we weren’t there, they’d be here. Arguably, they could be here because we are there, no? But such common sense questions are not permitted these days.”

It’s one of those predictions that one hopes will never come true.

The Taliban’s Aug. 15 threat to Canada - in the wake of the killing of two Canadian aid workers, ostensibly in retaliation for the increasing Afghan civilian toll from NATO operations - was chilling.

Only cowards cave in to such threats from murderers. Equally, only fools ignore them.

Harper, George W. Bush, Nicolas Sarkozy et al. have responded the right way: we shall not be deterred.

But they are giving the wrong answer for a way out. More troops won’t quite do it. An Iraq-like military surge - if and when it can be mustered, in the proportion required for Afghanistan - can only buy time to find a political solution.

The alarming violence - the rising toll among NATO troops, with Canadians paying a disproportionate price, and among Afghans - along with the Taliban control of more and more territory, especially close to Kabul, raise an eerie parallel. Is NATO now where the Soviets were in Afghanistan in the latter half of the 1980s?

At the very least, the current quagmire has allowed a band of criminals to frame the conflict as one between foreign invaders and indigenous freedom fighters.

Afghanistan is not the only conflict spinning out of Western control. Add Pakistan. Add Georgia. Add other geopolitical setbacks.

The puppets Bush nurtured - and, therefore, Harper, too - are weakened or toppled: Hamid Karzai, Mahmoud Abbas, Mikheil Saakashvili and Pervez Musharraf.

The parties Bush disliked - and, therefore, Harper, too - are infinitely stronger: Iran, Syria, Hamas and Hezbollah.

The projects Bush pushed - and, therefore, Harper, too - are derailed, if not dead: the entry of Georgia and Ukraine into NATO; the spreading of democracy in the autocratic Middle East; and winning the hearts and minds of Muslims to combat terrorism.

Some goals are clearly worthy. It’s the execution that hasn’t been.

Whatever Bush touched turned to dust, not just because he is hopelessly inept. It’s his overreliance on the military that did him in.

This shows “the bankruptcy of a militarized foreign policy,” notes Jim Reilly, professor of Near Eastern Studies at the University of Toronto. “The military is best used as a threat. Once you use it, there’s not much else … The United States has lost the ability to influence events.”

Reilly notes another historic parallel. Great Britain invaded Egypt in 1882. “Rather than strengthening the British interest, it proved to be the beginning of the decline of the British Empire. It barely won the First World War, at a ghastly cost. By the end of the Second World War, it was in hock to the U.S., and its empire was gone.”

Similarly, Bush’s wars have left the U.S. in a huge debt, “and in hock to the Chinese,” the chief buyers of U.S. treasury bills.

Is it a coincidence that during the Olympics we are reduced to shaming Beijing for its lip-synching singers and underage athletes, while having zero influence on its egregious human rights violations in Tibet and Xinjiang and elsewhere?

Another reason for the erosion of America’s influence has been Bush’s penchant for telling others to do what he says but not what he does.

Take Georgia. Not only is American military/political response ineffective (no economic sanctions on Russia, as suggested by Bush - and, therefore, Harper, too), its empty bluster constitutes a case of the pot calling the kettle black.

Bush said, and Harper agreed, rightly, that it is unacceptable in this day and age for one nation to invade another.

Yet there was the invasion and occupation of Iraq, which Harper backed. Both also backed the Israeli invasion of Lebanon. The U.S. has violated Syrian sovereignty, to stop the flow of insurgents into Iraq. Israel bombed an alleged Syrian nuclear facility. And now the U.S. and Israel are threatening to bomb Iran. So much for respecting the sovereignty and territorial integrity of nations.

Bush and his allies rightly demanded a ceasefire in Georgia. Yet they, especially Harper, had refused to call for one in Lebanon.

Russia wants regime change in Georgia, just as the U.S. wanted and engineered a regime change in Iraq and is now actively working on regime change in Iran.

We need the rule of law, internationally and at home.

That will be among the top priorities of the next president of the United States and, with some luck, a new prime minister in Canada.

John McCain, curbing his independent streak and falling in line with the neo-con wing of the Republican Party, is not likely to challenge the status quo. Barack Obama has started to, hoping to restore American credibility and clout.

Stéphane Dion has yet to. He needs to speak up for the urgent need to break away from the Bush-Harper policies that are alien to Canadian values, and have also proven counterproductive and dangerous.

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

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