Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Don't support Castro's island prison

It grates against our national character that Canada continues to do business with Cuba, thereby helping to prop up Fidel Castro's tyrannical regime.

Trade between our two nations is broad, encapsulating resources, mining, agriculture and beyond, but captains of industry are not the only ones who are complicit. During the winter months, many well-meaning Canadians fly, in grinning ignorance, to that imprisoned island for vacations. I say they are ignorant because my countrymen are not sociopaths: The tragic irony of sipping a Cuba Libre beside the pool in a hotel that native Cubans are forbidden from entering under pain of imprisonment, and within walking distance of one of Castro's torture chambers, would dampen the holiday of even the most hard-hearted snowbird, were they aware of the full circumstances by which they came to be clutching that refreshing beverage.

With the fall of the Soviet Union, Castro's regime lost US$4.5-billion in annual subsidies and billions more in trade. To make up for this lost revenue, the dictator decided to promote tourism, and Canadians account for the largest percentage of visitors to Cuba.

Certainly, vacations in Cuba are cheaper than other destinations. Slave labour has never been expensive. Vacationers who employ the flimsy subterfuge that they are injecting money into an impoverished economy ought to be aware that their dollars go directly to the sinister state, which pays the locals in worthless Cuban pesos. Private property and enterprise are essentially outlawed and Cubans who own contraband luxuries or approach tourists without permission are dealt with brutally.

A family friend who defected to Canada from Cuba some years ago -- and whose name cannot appear in print for the sake of his loved ones who are still in captivity there -- can attest to the contrast between the two countries. Having leapt to freedom from an airplane that was refuelling on a tarmac in Canada -- one Cuban guard on each arm to break his fall -- it would stun him to learn that citizens of the country he had risked his life to reach use the island prison of 11 million human beings as a relaxation destination.

As Liberal Deputy Leader Michael Ignatieff put it, in the interests of commerce, Canada has "turned a blind eye to a dictator." Unfortunately, few Canadian politicians of any party share his sober view. There is no shortage of government and academic types willing to tout the miracles of the Cuban health care and education systems -- myths that are routinely exploded by the testimony of liberated Cuban citizens -- and some go so far as to suggest that Canada should follow Cuba's lead. This line of argument will be vastly more compelling when we see thousands of people risking their lives on rafts to get in to Cuba.

The Canadian government's policy on Cuba continues to be "constructive engagement," which is precisely the kind of mealy-mouthed formulation that has been used to justify profit made from misery since time immemorial. Defenders of the status quo insist that Ottawa and Havana have "agreed to disagree" on some issues. How tragically typical of anaemic Canadian foreign policy that our response to tens of thousands of deaths, disappearances and torture carried out over half a century is an emphatic, "We disagree!"

Since 2006, there has been continued speculation as to Castro's health, or whether he is even alive. From time to time, El Jefe has appeared in his track suit to dispel rumours of his demise. But whether or not the despot has gone on to his reward, passing power to his equally brutal brother Raul, tyranny is tyranny and Canada ought to have nothing to do with it.

Canadians are lovers of freedom, and we have made supreme sacrifices in its defence. As pertains to Cuba, our corporate and personal decisions should be more in keeping with our proud history.

Friday, February 8, 2008

Lessons from Vietnam

With all the talk of possible firsts in the 2008 Presidential race -- would the first woman, black, or (until yesterday) Mormon be elected to America's highest office? -- one other potential breakthrough has been overlooked. If John McCain secures the Republican nomination and wins in November, he will be the first Vietnam veteran to be elected President of the United States.

This would be an extraordinary development. McCain's experience in Vietnam would help bring closure to America's role in that misunderstood conflict. It would also have important ramifications in regard to America's current campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The United States remains divided and confused about a war in which it lost more than 58,000 lives. Despite never losing a single battle -- including the famed Tet Offensive, whose 40th anniversary is being marked this month-- there can be no doubt that America lost the Vietnam War. The received wisdom has long had it that the United States should never have gone in and was right to get out.

But, as a Navy pilot and POW during Vietnam, McCain's perspective is different. He continues to believe that the fight to stop the spread of communism was justified, and the history of that region proves him right.

The pitiful scene of America's allies reaching for helicopters as Saigon fell was only the beginning.

When the Democratic U.S. Congress of 1975 insisted on starving the government of South Vietnam of support, it led to the massacre of millions of innocent people across Southeast Asia. Moreover, it made America appear to the world as an unreliable ally. It has taken a generation for that image to be repaired. As local populations in Iraq and Afghanistan risk their lives in siding with the United States against terrorist insurgents, a President Mc-Cain could be expected to honour the lesson of Vietnam and not abandon America's friends to their fate.

Critics of the Iraq war often characterize the conflict as "another Vietnam." They are right -- but for the wrong reasons. What the wars have in common is not that both were/are unwinnable quagmires, but that, in both cases, U.S. war planners underestimated the enemy, and were too impatient to get out. The so-called "Rumsfeld Strategy" in Iraq -- against which McCain inveighed from the outset -- prioritized technology and speed over numbers, and thereby provided too few troops to secure the peace. It was only last year, when George W. Bush implemented a "surge" strategy that boosted troop levels by 20,000, that sustained progress was made. This vindicates McCain, a military man who loudly and consistently championed a much larger invasion force as far back as 2003.

Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan all represent regional conflicts fought against global foes. In the case of Vietnam, the larger enemy was Chinese-and Soviet-sponsored communism; in Iraq and Afghanistan, it is worldwide Islamic terror. The United States needs a president who understands that losing this struggle would be as disastrous as losing the Cold War would have been.

To be sure, McCain has made many missteps in his long career. The 2002 McCain-Feingold legislation and the 2007 McCain-Kennedy immigration bill were affronts to freedom of speech and the rule of law, respectively. But from a foreign policy perspective, McCain is a formidable candidate. If he becomes President, we can expect that he will apply the lessons of Cold War history -- lessons that, unlike any presidential predecessor, he learned first-hand in Vietnam.

The thankless lot of the urban conservative

It is a curious thing to live in a city -- any city -- and to veer to the back roads of conservatism from the main strip of leftist thinking one finds in an urban center. Conservative city dwellers are akin to the early Christians in that, while we can expect disagreement or outright scorn for voicing our views in the public square, we cherish those rare kindred spirits we find, and we bond together for warmth.

Not all those on the left are hostile, of course, and their attempts at converting conservatives can be almost endearing. "Oh, you must read the latest piece by [insert, say, Erica Jong, Robert Reich, Maureen Dowd, Paul Krugman, or any other mainstream liberal thinker]," they will gently insist. If you have presented a business card or contact details to the progressive proselytizer, the column in question may helpfully appear in your email. The assumption, of course, is that in your pitiful benightedness, you simply have not been exposed to received liberal wisdom. This misunderstands the reality that if a person lives in a city -- and especially if he or she was brought up in one -- that individual is already surrounded by liberal voices and has, at some point, had to make a decision to look at the world differently.

For this reason, we happy few who live with conservative views and within driving distance of an international airport prove infuriatingly difficult for our liberal friends to turn. It is not that we are unfamiliar with your ideas; rather, we have heard them through and through and we respectfully disagree. The urban conservative prioritizes the rule of law, limited government, and low taxation, and does so without anticipation of Amens from next door. Being faced with such an individual can be a gobsmacking experience for the average city dweller.

At times, an ailing metropolis will turn its lowly eyes to one of these strange characters in their midst. When a dilapidated and crime-ridden New York City elected Rudy Giuliani in 1993, for example, it was a choice made out of necessity and against type. Filthy streets, spiralling homicide rates and the scorn of the rest of America forced Gotham to turn from its path of least resistance and vote for a no-nonsense prosecutor from the Reagan Justice Department who promised to revamp welfare, curb spending, and punish lawbreakers. It is worth noting that Giuliani had offered his services to the city four years before, in 1989, and was rebuffed. New Yorkers needed four years of the disastrous David Dinkins to decide, at long last, that it was time to turn to one of the confident minority of the citys conservatives.

Despite his demonstrable success, Giulianis overarching philosophy was never accepted by the locals. Times Square and the theatre district came back to life under Rudys watch, but Broadway stars spoke out vigorously against his erstwhile campaign for the United States Senate in 2000. There was no more adamant opponent of Giulianis campaign for the presidency in 2008 than the New York Times even though Rudy arranged for them to come and go from their 43rd Street offices without fear of being hit with a bicycle chain. Such is the thankless lot of the big city conservative.

Some cities never learn. Washington, D.C., for example, would be a punch-line, were the squalor and homicides on its streets not so tragic. And yet, Americas capital has never elected a conservative or even a liberal Republican to be its mayor since the District was first given home rule. Elsewhere, as in Toronto or Boston, severe budget shortfalls brought about by profligate spending are obscured when higher levels of government swoop in with cash. Service shortages and garbage pileups are shrugged off as the cost of being cosmopolitan.

But the urban conservative is the eternal optimist, and so presses on against the crowd.

Tuesday, February 5, 2008

'I prefer messy democracy to the stability of tyrants'

Election workers sort ballot papers in Kabul in
October, 2004 (Ahmad Masood, Reuters)

An interview with Iraq's ambassador to Canada

Howar Ziad, the Iraqi ambassador to Canada, has seen the best and the worst of humanity in his homeland. The courage of the Iraqi people, and in particular the emergence of the Kurdistan region from decades of genocide and devastation, represents the highest aspirations of the human spirit. The brutality of the previous 35 years, meanwhile -- torture, mass killings, disappearances and chemical attacks -- is a legacy of man's inhumanity to man. Western politicians, journalists and intellectuals inveigh against the American campaign in Iraq but, having seen the changes in his country, ambassador Ziad shares none of their doubts.

In conversations with me last week, ambassador Ziad spoke of the progress Iraq is making, the yawning indifference this has aroused in the mainstream press and the gratitude of his people for the intervention of the United States and its allies.

When asked if, despite the absence of weapons of mass destruction, the persistence of the terrorist insurgency and the resulting death and instability, the campaign to topple Saddam Hussein was justified, Ziad's answer is categorical and emphatic: "Absolutely. To put this question to the average Iraqi is ridiculous and probably insulting. That regime enslaved people and caused genocide, wars and breached every single human right."

It is this history that makes the nascent success of a free Iraq so remarkable. "We have a democratically elected government," Ziad reports with pride. "We had three elections and, for the first time in the Islamic Middle East, we didn't know the result of the election beforehand."
With a federal budget of $48-billion, declining inflation rates and a newly merged currency that is steadily increasing in value, the economic picture of the new Iraq is brightening, too. Iraq's Kurdistan region, spared major terrorist attacks in recent years, is booming. Its annual development budget is a remarkable $5-billion, and in its capital of Erbil people are buying Western-style apartments in gated communities built around swimming pools. Tens of thousands of Iraqis have begun returning to their homes, thanks to the improved security situation.

Despite constant attempts by terrorists to disrupt production, Iraq's oil output is approaching three million barrels per day. With oil prices at historic highs, this upward trend is good news for Iraqi citizens. "In the past," Ziad points out, "oil revenue has gone to dictators like Saddam, with none of the benefit going to the people." As Christopher Hitchens noted during a trip to the region: "Everybody knows how to snigger when you mention Jeffersonian democracy and Iraq in the same breath; try sniggering when you meet someone who is trying to express these ideas in an atmosphere that only a few years ago was heavy with miasmic decay and the reek of poison gas."

To be sure, the terrorist threat within the country remains, although al-Qaeda haunts the nation as a ghost of its former self. Sectarian divides among Sunni, Shiite and Kurdish populations pose a challenge, but ambassador Ziad likes to point to Canada's example of devolved federalism to demonstrate how people of different cultures and regions can share a nation.

The analogy may seem far-fetched, since Canada's cultural fissures are nowhere near so recent and deadly as those in Iraq. Even so, Canadians can be grateful and proud that Iraqis see our system as an object of supreme aspiration.

Ambassador Ziad shares the belief held by many supporters of the Iraq campaign that, as the counterinsurgency strategy of U.S. General David Petraeus has yielded positive results, the elite news outlets that condemned the American invasion from the beginning have turned a blind eye. According to the Media Research Center, which has been tracking news coverage for over 20 years, the major American networks carried 178 news stories about the Iraq war in September, 2007. By November, by which time the situation had improved, that number had plummeted to 68. In a news culture where The New York Times put Abu Ghraib on its front page 32 days in a row, such a precipitous drop in concern for Iraq speaks volumes.

At times, reporters' obsession with finding bad news about Iraq can lead them beyond satire. Presumably with straight faces, the McClatchy news service lamented in October of 2007 that, "As violence falls in Iraq, cemetery workers feel the pinch."

But ambassador Ziad's ideals are higher than what one reads in the morning paper, and he knows that words are only that. "Regardless of what the media do," he says, "if we genuinely make progress, it really doesn't matter. We have faced many challenges: the terrorists, obviously, and many others who have vested interests -- they didn't want us to succeed. It's not easy to overcome the legacy of a genocidal, fascist regime, but so far we have made it. Economically, the average person is much better off than they used to be, and freedom has strength. It's not perfect. But step by step, we are moving forward, with the help of our friends, the United States."

Reflecting on the vicissitudes of Iraq's young liberty, he adds, "I prefer messy democracy to the stability of tyrants."

It is fashionable to dismiss the U.S.-led campaign in Iraq as a mistake, a failure or even a crime, and with such scorn comes easy agreement and approbation from sophisticates. But, for the people of Iraq, the unpopular truth is more compelling.