Tuesday, October 7, 2014

War and Righteous Christian Warriors. . . . .

Stephen Harper's motivations to have Canada get involved in the new war in Iraq are essentially two fold. On the one hand Harper is a religious fanatic who has, for many years, hungered to demonstrate his Christian righteousness in war with the 'barbarian heathens.' Harper's other motivation is a last ditch effort to get himself reelected through a portrayal of himself as a Putin-like strong-man. Because of the nature of these two motivating factors, they probably are not subject to reversal. On the one hand Harper's religious fanaticism is, though never talked about by the mainstream media, very real. He would take any genuine opportunity to simplify the world into the "good" and the "bad" and put himself in the place of a Christian warrior wielding the sword of god in the name of righteousness. On the other hand, it is clear to almost everyone (and maybe even to himself) that if things kept going the way they were, Harper had no chance for reelection, so he is deeply committed to any kind of war as a path to another stint in power.

The strategy, however, is not without glaring pitfalls. For a war to be a path to reelection within the context of modern Western democracies it requires two basic principles - it must be short and it must be successful. However, I have heard no credible military strategist (even the ones who are in favour of this war) who say it can be short. And they uniformly admit that to stop ISIS with a military effort will require a great deal more than simple airstrikes. In fact, only a couple weeks into this war and we are already seeing analysts saying that these bombing efforts are not having their desired effects and may even be making the situation worse. Furthermore, anyone who is actually honest and familiar with recent events knows that Western military efforts in the Middle East have only increased instability. Therefore, we can fairly easily conclude that Harper's involvement in this war will leave him with a troubling dilemma. As it becomes clear that bombing ISIS will not bring about the desired effect, the West will either have to abandon the effort or increase and widen the war. If Western nations like the UK and the US start putting "boots on the ground," Harper will either have to commit Canada to a similar effort or demonstrate a troubling hypocrisy. He has made such efforts to tell us that this is a "noble" (read Holy) war, and that Canada doesn't sit on the sidelines, that if he doesn't commit ground-troops with other nations his publicity strategy will be exposed as a fraud. And as sheep-like as the Canadian public can be, I think a troop commitment in Iraq will be a career-ending move by any politician.

And these are by no means the most troubling issues for Harper where this war is concerned. What if, as history demonstrates, this war dramatically increases the instability in the region? What if it strengthens al-Assad's power in Syria? What if Turkey gets drawn into the war in a significant way, making Western nations obliged to be more actively involved? And perhaps most dauntingly, what if this effort makes Canada a target of a successful and significant terrorist attack on home soil? This will make Harper's military efforts toward righteousness a significant political liability.

What seems clear to me is that history teaches us that this war will do nothing to reduce instability in the Middle East. Western military efforts in the region have done nothing but make the situation worse. This is because the narrative that Western leaders continually tell us about the Middle East  is simply false. Militant, Anti-Western Islam doesn't exist simply because "they" hate our democracy and our decadence. Oh, of course there are always crazy people out there in all religions who do all sorts of terrible things. But to create large, unified forces you need something more than a twisted religious fervor. At the risk of committing "sociology," it should be clear to anyone with common sense and even a mild familiarity with the situation that it is generations of injustice that has fed the ranks of militant, anti-western Islamic organizations. If men like Harper really wanted to solve these problems they wouldn't be screaming out a call to war. The solutions are fairly simple, support a just and equitable solution to the Palestine problem, give them their land back and give them a proper state and make them stake-holders in prosperity and peace in the Middle-East. Stop supporting dictators in countries like Saudi Arabia and UAE, and compel those dictators to creating more democratic and equitable societies. Then take all the billions of dollars that you are spending on bombs and war planes and put it into development in the region (schools, hospitals etc.) These efforts will not solve all the problems immediately, but over time such solutions will rob the radical, violent groups of their constituency and give reasons to commit to a peaceful and just society rather than to a life and death in some kind of 'holy-war.'

Harper is surely betting on his war efforts to run fairly smoothly at least until the next election rolls along. Because Conservative strategists can't be stupid enough to think that they can register a huge an immediate military victory, they must be thinking that all that has to happen is that things don't go terribly wrong over the next 12 months and their leader will come out smelling like a rose while the opposition will look like terrorist enablers. And on the surface that must look like a good strategy. The so-called 'quagmire' problems that I have been talking about here could take a number of years to develop, and Harper only needs a relatively short window of renewed popularity to get reelected. However, once again there is a significant problem here. Everything running "smoothly" means the war not registering significantly in the public mind. The problem with that is that then the 'strongman' leader effect cannot play in the public mind. This means that the things that are leading to Harper's general unpopularity will still be there. Thus Harper's strategy runs the very real risk of being a zero sum game, and at worst (if things go horribly wrong) being a total political disaster for him.

Of course, with a man like Harper, most of this may not even register. His fanaticism might be trumping all these potential downfalls. Instead Harper may only be living in space in which he is a righteous Christian warrior doing God's work. We all know how well that worked for Tony Blair.

Friday, October 3, 2014

The War Cycle Continues. . .

Few things make my palms more sweaty than a political leader telling me that the war into which he wan't to lead us is "noble." They say that every war has its own excuse, but behind of every call to arms is some guy (usually a man in a suit nowadays) telling us that it is not only necessary but noble. If every act of war was as noble as the leaders tell us it is then we would be an awfully noble race. The problem is that there is something sick and twisted about the very idea that killing people can ever be a noble act. But that is the great lie that leaders must sell in order to rally people behind the flag.

There is one sense in which we can see war as a failure. Most wars seem to be a result of the failure of politicians and policy makers in one way or another. Many historians talk of WWII being a direct result of the shortcomings of the Treaties at Versailles. The past looms over us like a deathly shadow threatening to burst out again in another useless conflagration. Politicians beat the drums of the past to whip up the war-like sentiment of the people as the French leaders did at the beginning of WWI with Alsace-Lorraine. Or they use some supposed immanent threat which, upon examination, is actually the direct result of their own failings in the first place. This is the situation in which we now find ourselves. The existence of ISIS is a direct result of a century of outrageous, colonial-minded decisions on the part of the Western powers. More recently, it is the direct result of a series of unbelievable failures in Iraq and Syria. A long history of supporting dictatorships until it is no longer convenient and then completely ill-considered invasions with a dramatic lack of understanding of indigenous political issues. All this against the backdrop of a continually one-sided approach to the Palestine Question, an approach that is a never ending source of recruitment for radially anti-Western Islamic groups.

The West makes bad policy, supports dictators, sows discontent, and then through military adventurism it creates power vacuum that results in another threat or conflict. How many times are the leaders going to ask us to support another war that is the direct result of their failings?

But then there is another, perhaps more cynical (perhaps more accurate) view of these events. Perhaps these are not failures on the part of our leaders but successes. They might be viewed as such if one remembers the amount of profit that is made by large corporations each time another one of these military adventures comes along. Let us not forget that each time the US launches another Tomahawk Missile at ISIS, McDonnell Douglas makes another cool million. And let us also remember the trillions of dollars that was spent in the war in Iraq, some of it going to arms dealers and manufacturers, some to infrastructure builders, and a great deal of it now entirely untraceable. Perhaps behind their rhetoric of the nobility of war, the simple profit motive is the real success story here.

No, there is nothing noble in Harper's war, the war that he has been longing to get into for over a decade and the one that he hopes will get him reelected. None of us doubt that ISIS is a bunch of terrible people. But it is Western wars and militarism that brought them into a position of power in the first place. More war isn't going to solve the problem. It is less war and more peace and development that we need. This is just another white man in a suit who is diverting tax money to arms dealers in a never ending cycle of conflict while the real injustices that feed the conflict go unaddressed.