Thursday, July 31, 2008

A caped study in leadership

The latest Batman instalment, The Dark Knight, which has been shattering box office records since its recent opening, is an extraordinary piece of filmmaking. There are myriad bits to love about this movie, from the special effects to the writing, to the tour de force performance of the late Heath Ledger as Batman's arch enemy, the Joker. But for all his heroism and gadgets and karate chops delivered with laconic precision (Batman is a fighter, not a talker), the most astounding thing about the Dark Knight's tale is the way in which he can get other people to perform at a top-notch level.

A cynic may point out that Bruce Wayne, Batman's alter-ego, is a billionaire, and so can just pay folks to do whatever he wants. But as anyone who has ever hired a contractor or an employee knows, simply giving people more money does not guarantee better work.

In Batman's circle, everything is done first-class, the first time, with life and death hanging in the balance. When, for example, our hero heads to Hong Kong to shanghai a fugitive businessman and bring him back to Gotham, the plan requires precision explosives, electronic surveillance planted by people in advance and, by the way, an airplane flying over the building at the exact right time. As everything goes off without a hitch, one wonders: What did he say at the planning meeting to get everyone to do all these jobs just right?

To give the devil his due, the Joker also shows otherworldly ability for getting groups to move with competence and purpose. When he and his henchmen perform a daring bank robbery, all of them wearing clown masks, the operation depends not only on tremendous skill and split-second timing, but each of the bad guys is required to kill one of his accomplices once his task is complete. It isn't just the large tasks -- safe-cracking and scheduled murders -- that the Joker's people get right. It's also little things, like no one forgot their clown mask that day. Impressive stuff.

Perhaps this common gift for getting folks to complete major and minor assignments correctly and on time informs the Joker's insistence to Batman, "You're just like me."

One of Batman's challenges in the film is dealing with copycats -- pitiful schlubs in black-painted hockey pads, hopping around Gotham, hoping to emulate him. Predictably, the imposters' attempts at crime-fighting go sideways and the real Batman needs to step in to set things right. In this, the film provides a potent contrast between the fruits of a tireless, disciplined performer and a group of amateurish hacks.

Again, a cynic may say that the amateurs' attempts at imitation are reflective of real life, while the skill and leadership Batman evinces are possible only in the movies. Perhaps so, but the film's point is still a valid one:Do it right, or go home.

Thematic of Batman's struggle is his desire to be something more than a hero. To wit, he yearns to be more than the object of admiration and emulation. He wants to achieve an aim that is bigger than himself, regardless of how he appears to others.

Without spoiling the movie for the few people on the planet who have yet to see it, Batman ultimately realizes that to uphold the citywide sense of hope he has worked for, he must take the blame for hideous crimes that he did not commit. He does this knowing that he will be hated and hunted by all of Gotham as a result.

This selfless devotion to a greater good is the film's final lesson. Batman is more than just a hero. He is a leader.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Dewey Defeats Truman

Syndicated columnist Charles Krauthammer recently asked of Senator Barack Obama, “Who does he think he is?” A fair response would be, “He thinks he is Thomas Dewey.”

The crux of Krauthammer’s question lay in Obama’s presumption of the trappings of the presidency, even though he has not yet won the election: his erstwhile plan to speak at the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin, as Presidents Kennedy and Reagan did; his campaign’s updated presidential seal, complete with Latin inscription; and his general carrying-on as though he were uniquely gifted to lead the United States from darkness into light.

In 1948, embattled and unpopular President Harry Truman, who had attained the top job on the death of Franklin Roosevelt in 1945, faced an election challenge from Governor Thomas Dewey of New York. Almost no one expected Truman to defeat Dewey, a fearless prosecutor and accomplished executive from the vote-rich Empire State.

Sixty years later, although the parties are reversed (Obama is a Democrat; Dewey was a Republican), the parallels are evident. In 2008, as in 1948, a troubled, incumbent presidential party is being challenged by the most effective nominee its counterpart can muster.

Also in both years, the front-runner went about acting like he had the election in the bag. Krauthammer has catalogued Obama’s excesses in 2008. Dewey’s 1948 campaign, in an error for the ages, opted to avoid discussion of contentious issues. The rationale was that Dewey could sit on the strength of his party’s position, and that no good would come of picking fights.

Obama is frequently criticized for floating platitudinous nonsense about “hope” and “change” in lieu of serious policy. His oratory, like Dewey’s, enthralls cheering crowds, but the voting booth is a very private place. Once inside, as Dewey learned to his sorrow, voters may not make their mark for a candidate whose actual opinions remain a mystery.

Media favouritism is also a factor in 2008, as it was sixty years ago. Network news anchors opted to accompany Obama on his recent overseas trip – having never tagged along on any of Republican nominee Sen. John McCain’s many sojourns – and the kid-glove treatment Obama receives from the press exasperated his opponents throughout the Democratic primaries.

In 1948, the press heavily favoured Dewey, the Republican – how times change – and the image of Truman holding up the premature Chicago Daily Tribune headline reading, “Dewey Defeats Truman” remains among the most iconic in American history.

The question remains, then, will the presidential election of 2008 end up like that of 1948, with the dashing dauphin defeated by the hopeless underdog? Can McCain perform a Truman-style turnabout on his more photogenic foe? Certainly, he can.

In 1948, Truman’s troubles were both personal and partisan. Having overseen such controversial issues as the Fair Deal, the 1946 Republican takeover of Congress and, not least, the dropping of the atomic bomb, he had a lot to defend. Moreover, Truman’s Democratic Party was splintered, as Sen. Strom Thurmond led his Dixiecrats from the fold and former Vice President Henry Wallace took his Progressives out where the buses don’t run.

McCain has no such gargantuan problems in 2008. He has frequently differed from his own party and its unpopular president, which earns him credibility among the general electorate. And while there are hard feelings among some of McCain’s Republican colleagues, Obama’s promises to hike taxes and spending while fostering fist-bumping, towel-snapping friendships with the world’s worst dictators ensure the party will not be divided on Election Day.

If, as Truman did, McCain wages an aggressive, thoughtful campaign, he can defeat an opponent whom many have crowned already.

Dewey’s hubris is a principal reason that his name does not appear in the roll call of presidents. Hopefully, Obama has not learned this lesson of history.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

A war no one wants

"Right now I'm fighting two wars. I don't need a third one."
- Admiral Michael Mullen, U. S. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, July 20, 2008.

This was Admiral Mullen's response to the question of whether Israel or the United States will launch tactical strikes against Iran's nuclear facilities. As the Iraq and Afghanistan campaigns continue, it is wise to demur at the notion of a third conflict, especially when its implications could eclipse those of the other two combined. With the global economy already showing weakness, and oil at record-high prices, war with Iran would make these difficult days look like high times. Indeed, the fallout from an Israeli or U. S. attack would constitute the second-worst-case scenario imaginable. The worst, of course, would be a nuclear-armed Iran.

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad often speaks of his intention to wipe Israel off the map. Now, when a regime or a person spends decades promising to kill you, the prudent thing is to believe them. Consequently, one of the few conclusions on which Western politicians of all parties agree is that Iran cannot be allowed to have a nuclear weapon.

The question becomes, then, how to prevent this?

The world owes Israel a debt for its 1981 strike against Iraq's Osirak reactor, which forever ended Saddam Hussein's nuclear weapons program. As ever, condemnation of Israel's unilateral and bellicose act poured in from elites and diplomats around the world. But when one considers how differently Saddam's 1990 invasion of Kuwait might have developed if he had nuclear weapons, there can be no doubt the 1981 strike was justified.

Today, if the only fallout from a similar strike on Iran were United Nations gadflies spinning their bow ties with rage, Israel or the United States could put an end to this right now. Sadly, it is not so simple.

A plausible scenario for such a strike goes something like this: Israel hits Iran's known nuclear weapons facilities. The Iranians respond by closing the Straits of Hormuz, through which roughly 25% of the world's daily oil production travels. American military leaders in the region have stated that closing the Straits would constitute an act of war, and so they would overrun Iranian forces.

Assuming a complete, swift military victory, and that the Israeli strikes took out every single Iranian weapons plant, the world will still wake up to oil at $250 a barrel and global markets in collapse.

And these are fat assumptions we are making on the plus side. The early years of the Iraq war showed that even conflict with an overmatched enemy can be costly if the right strategy is not in place. As to taking out Iran's nuclear facilities, they are more numerous, less conspicuous and better protected than Osirak was. American and Israeli intelligence may have a good handle on where the sites are located but, as the Iraq war once again instructs, even that sort of information can be tragically flawed.

U. S. President George W. Bush has been criticized by fellow Republicans recently for sending State Department officials to meet with Iranian nuclear negotiators in Switzerland. This represents a reversal of the President's policy of the past several years, which was that no talks would take place until Iran agreed to suspend its uranium enrichment activities. Agreeing to meet now, when Iran has made no meaningful concessions, looks like weakness. But Bush's critics ought to keep the desired outcomes in mind: Iran cannot have a nuclear weapon, and no one wants a war. If face is lost but lives are saved, more power to him.

Yes, the West could go to war with Iran and, sooner or later, we would probably win. But considering the cost of such a conflict, men of good will must do all they can to keep that from happening.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Freedom alien notion to liberals

In recent days, liberals around the world have made headlines for doing what they do best: Hectoring and bossing.

British Prime Minister Gordon Brown lectured his countrymen on the evils of wasting food shortly before tucking into 14 courses over two meals at the G8 summit in Japan.

U.S. presidential candidate Sen. Barack Obama has advised Americans that maintaining their homes at 72 F is unacceptable in the eyes of the global community.

Meanwhile in Canada, so-called human rights tribunals continue to pillory columnists and comedians, and liberal justices recently ruled a father had no right to ground his 12-year-old daughter.

With these instances in mind, it is time to recalibrate our political labels. Specifically, the term "liberal," which is derived from "liberty," ought to be replaced with its common synonym, "left-wing." The reason for this is the totalitarian impulse of those who espouse modern liberalism. If a person imagines his wisdom and privilege are sufficient to tell you what you may say, how much you can eat, and how to raise your children, chances are excellent that he is what we would call in common parlance a "liberal."

But of course, he is no freedom-minded fellow. And liberals, as they are known, do not always base their prescriptions for others' lives on their position or perspicacity.

Indeed, they have a much more powerful and devious rationale. That is, the Common Good. "Don't you care about (insert 'the children' or 'the whales' or, most often these days, 'the planet')?" Such is demanded of anyone foolish enough to dissent from whatever orthodoxy is populating liberals' protest placards at the moment.

Just rhetorical

Be warned that this is a rhetorical question, and any attempt to respond may engender a flurry of profanity, encapsulating one's appearance to one's parentage (one cannot know the anger that adults are willing to commit to the eternity of e-mail until one has advocated some right-of-centre position in the public square).

What causes such outrage? It is not that you are wrong and they are right. It is that you dare to disagree.

The left does not have the evidence of history on its side -- they do not even know what that evidence is. True leftists are even less acquainted with facts than with showers. Your divergence from the herd is sufficient to kindle their wrath.

Conservatives, meanwhile, have two principal objections to this Common do-Goodery.

First, we usually reject whatever rationale liberals have put forward. For example, while liberals insist that "climate change" is the world's worst danger, conservatives are not so ready to take David Suzuki's word for it.

Second, conservatives aver that even if some legal, personal action of theirs results in a negligible net negative to the Common Good, the decision as to whether to cease or maintain that behaviour should fall to the individual, not liberal overseers. The discretion to be different is the essence of freedom, and it is anathema to the modern liberal world view.

Wouldn't it be good, liberals insist, if everyone were compelled to do only what is in the best interests of society and the planet? Conservatives demur that such notions are impractical and inhuman. As evidence, liberals refer to Al Gore's movie, while we cite the 20th century.

Nowadays, being liberal has nothing to do with freedom.

Monday, July 14, 2008

Theo Caldwell: What Canada can offer Iraq ... and vice versa

Dr. Latif Rashid, Iraq's Minister of Water Resources, brought his vital portfolio to Canada last week in search of knowledge and partnership. He avers that Canadian equipment, technical skill and diplomacy, deployed correctly, can benefit his country and ours, as a resurgent Iraq welcomes foreign investment. Thus far, Dr. Rashid is encouraged and grateful for Canada's support.

At the best of times, Dr. Rashid's task would be a difficult one. He notes that the Middle East holds roughly 1% of the world's fresh water, which must be stretched to supply more than a billion people. His job was made tougher by Iraq's former regime, which, as a tactical and punitive measure, drained the country's 25,000 square kilometres of marshlands. This was done, Dr. Rashid points out, to provide staging ground for Iraq's war with Iran and to displace dissidents among Iraq's so-called Marsh Arabs.

While living in London, Dr. Rashid campaigned vigorously against the draining of the marshes, but to no avail. The result was an environmental and human catastrophe, during which half a million people were displaced or died.

Environmental zealots in North America burn with rage at gas-guzzling automobiles, yearning to drag soccer moms and dads from their SUVs and bludgeon them with Birkenstocks. But their anger would be better spent on men like the late Saddam Hussein — arguably the worst environmental terrorist of all time — whose burning of oil fields and draining of Iraq's marshes destroyed millennia-old ecosystems and did more damage to the planet than all the world's suburban carpools combined.

Since he took up his post in September, 2003, Dr. Rashid and his ministry have worked tirelessly to reverse the damage caused by the former regime. Their achievements have been extraordinary. Over 80% of the marshland has been reinstated and half the population has come back. Those Marsh Arabs who have not returned, according to Dr. Rashid, have chosen to remain in places where they established new lives in the years since their displacement.

As a senior member of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's Iraqi government, Dr. Rashid speaks with authority on other issues affecting the region, from the waning insurgency to Iranian sabre-rattling.

He is encouraged that Iraqis can now travel about the country — including to his office to make requests in person — in a way that was impossible even a year ago. "The security situation has improved," he told me in an interview. "The relationships among various segments of society are much better. There is more understanding. A year ago, we were worried about civil war. Now, in large areas that had sectarian conflict, life has become normal again."

Dr. Rashid does not want to give a glossy picture and says that officials are still very careful. But he believes the rapid progress in his country is a function of the U. S.-led troop surge strategy, combined with Iraqis' sincere desire for peace.

Asked about the escalation of tensions between Israel and Iran in recent days, Dr. Rashid is circumspect: "The Iranians are clever. They will not allow it to get to that stage where action takes place. It might happen, but I doubt it."

Dr. Rashid is well aware of Iran's influence within his own country: "Iran has become a major power player in the region. In Iraq, Iran has got good, strong contacts with every political group."

Like many observers, Dr. Rashid draws a distinction between Iran's hard-line regime and its population. Most Iranians are under 35 years of age and they long less for war than for freedom. "Every time I go to Iran, I see the change," Dr. Rashid says with optimism. "Young people — the way they dress, the way they talk, the way they behave."

As to the single most important step Canada could take to strengthen its partnership with Iraq, Dr. Rashid is straightforward: "Establish your embassy in Baghdad." At the moment, Canada's diplomatic mission is stationed in Amman, Jordan, where Margaret Huber, of whom Dr. Rashid speaks very highly, serves as Canadian ambassador to Jordan and Iraq. While he understands that security is a concern for foreign service workers, Dr. Rashid points out that Canada is the only G8 country that has not established an embassy in Iraq's capital.

Canada has been blessed with one of the world's largest supplies of fresh water, and has developed the technology and tools to irrigate effectively. Iraq, meanwhile, holds potential for investors as its conditions improve by the day. Dr. Rashid's mission is to bring those interests together, for the benefit of both countries.

Monday, July 7, 2008

Obama's got style, little else

Conventional wisdom holds that the presumptive Democratic nominee for president, Sen. Barack Obama, is the greatest American orator since Daniel Webster.

Any opinion to the contrary is drowned by a sea of praise, as pundits spend an average of 40 seconds enthusing over Obama's speaking style before addressing his actual words.

If Obama were to belch the alphabet, he would not get past B without being interrupted by applause.

On the left and right, everyone "knows" that Obama is an inspiring and extraordinary speaker. From Chris Matthews's famously trembling leg to Jonah Goldberg's assessment that Obama "constructs cathedrals with his words," approbation pours in from all sides.

A less benighted observer may find Obama to be insufferable. With his chin in the air, humourlessly holding forth from on high, he appears the very picture of pomposity. And without a script, he makes George W. Bush sound like Demosthenes.

Listen to Obama taking interview or debate questions. There are far more "ums" and "ahs" per square inch than one would expect from a candidate who knows what he believes and where he wants to take the free world.

Coupled with this are pregnant pauses, presumably meant to portray thoughtful sophistication.

This is the cadence of the faculty lounge, which is fitting, since this is also where most of his far-left policies originate.

During one primary debate, CNN's Wolf Blitzer asked Obama to clarify his position on giving driver's licences to illegal aliens -- 15 days after Hillary Clinton had bobbled the same question.

Obama showed Blitzer his palms as if in surrender and haltingly began, "I am not proposing that that's what we do..."

The debate audience hooted him down at once (this was previous to the Obama campaign memo that any criticism or mockery of the man would be considered racism).

Even Blitzer evinced some impatience, commenting, "This question is available for a yes or no answer."

The crowd erupted with laughter at Obama's expense.

Herein lay an object lesson for the young senator: When you are a liberal Democrat and media darling and even Wolf Blitzer is scoring off you, it is time to work on your debate skills.

To his credit, Obama himself seems to recognize this limitation. His opponent, Sen. John McCain, has proposed that they meet in a series of 10 town hall-style debates leading up to the November election.

McCain thrives in such a forum, taking questions and interacting with regular voters. Obama, meanwhile, is most at home on a raised platform, reading from a teleprompter to an enraptured and unquestioning audience, at least some of whom (especially journalists) experience spasmodic fits at his every syllable.

With these relative strengths and weaknesses in mind, Obama has laid down more conditions for debating with McCain than for meeting with the president of Iran.

But these are mostly matters of style. For all his shady associations and halting prose, the most condemnatory aspect of Obama's campaign is the sheer awfulness of his policies themselves.

From raising taxes across the board to negotiating unconditionally with the world's most vicious regimes, he is a font of bad ideas.

Let the man speak, and let the nation have clarity on just what President Obama would do.

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Theo Caldwell on abortion and Morgentaler's Order of Canada: Every child is a Gift of God

I began bothering people in 1973. This was the year that I was born, and folks who have known me since before I could form memories assure me that my company was unpleasant almost from day one.

Something else happened in that year — something that has had a profound effect on society ever since. In January of 1973, the United States Supreme Court handed down its landmark Roe vs. Wade ruling, guaranteeing American women the right to abortion.

My parents were not religious people at that time, nor were they particularly politically minded. All the same, something about America’s top lawyers decreeing that lives could be ended before they began affected them very deeply. So, when it came time to name me (this process took an unusually long time — being as I was a second child, there seemed little urgency to the matter), they thought to recognize the fact that while I had been born in good health, millions of other little fellows would never get that chance. They looked past our Irish roots (most of our monikers have to do with drink or revenge, anyway) and named me Theodore, which is Greek for “Gift of God” (I hasten to add that they settled on this handle before they had taken the full measure of my personality or, significantly, before I had learned to speak).

Today in Canada, the man who led the charge for abortion, defying the law before our own Supreme Court reached the same dubious conclusion as its American counterpart, is the object of acclaim. Dr. Henry Morgentaler has been awarded the Order of Canada, the nation’s highest civilian honour, which is symbolized by a snowflake-shaped lapel pin.

At my age, and with my middling skills, I have not been graced with the time or talent to have attained such a prestigious award. But if I had, and if the same folks who honoured me then chose to celebrate a man for snuffing out little lives, I like to think I would waste no time in telling them where to stick their snowflake. I was proud that my father removed his own hard-earned Order of Canada immediately upon hearing of Morgentaler’s accolade.

Future generations may well condemn our society’s countenance of abortion in the same way we look back in wonder and revulsion at those who defended slavery. Men such as William Wilberforce and Abraham Lincoln are rightly revered today for their opposition to that peculiar institution — but we must recall that they were outnumbered and reviled in their time. Indeed, both men were stretched to the limit of their political skills, and their lives, to obtain justice. The nobility of their cause, though clear to us, was nowhere near apparent to their contemporaries. Then, as now, the most dreadful things can become convention if enough folks go along.

Every child is important, and they are all wanted by someone. Most significant, children are not possessions, nor are they disposable appendages before their birth. All children deserve a chance, even those who are disagreeable and grow up to write contentious columns.

None of us, not even justices of the Supreme Court, knows where souls can be found before life begins or where they go when it is over. It is a beautiful mystery of which each human life owns a part. In this way, every child is a Gift of God.