This is a blog dedicated to a personal interpretation of political news of the day. I attempt to be as knowledgeable as possible before commenting and committing my thoughts to a day's communication.

Thursday, July 31, 2008

Ramping Up The Verbal Missiles

With only a few months left to go in the political drama that is a presidential election in the United States, diplomacy withers, good fellowship takes a drive to the backwoods and the duelling begins in earnest. For the Republicans, the Democratic candidate-presumptive's high popularity is the proverbial glove-slap in the face. Let the game proceed as it will, and the winner will most certainly take all.

Senator Obama's popularity - with himself and through his adoring supporters - is likened to that of pop singers. The message of course is that he is about as deep-thinking as the ilk of Britney Spears and Paris Hilton; his popular appeal based on the iconographic appeal of celebrity stardom, sans substance. His detractors see him as a self-infused messiah, promising to lead Americans to the holy land of self-respect.

War-weary, depression-fearful, finance-oppressed Americans have had enough of a Republican in the White House. They yearn for the good old days when the vision of an America beset with huge deficits, the population facing a high unemployment rate, mortgage defaults, worries about Medicare, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were simply not on their horizon. They want to back pedal to the good old days.

Whatever they were. And Barak Obama promises to take them there. And in the process to gift them with something they've never had; universal equality, a state of peace within and without. Acceptance, finally, of one another. He's big on grandstanding, and portraying himself as the equal of any world leader, lending himself an air of international gravitas as Europe's leaders and those of the Middle East see him as a fresh promise for a new tomorrow.

Pity he's fecklessly oblivious to his own demonstrated self-absorption in self as America's Messiah. It does not sit too well with critical observers. Who like their high flying politicians to demonstrate just a tad of humble street-smart credentials along with the hubris of their ambitions, a kind of leavening of the rising yeast of accomplishment and anticipation. So it's no holds barred now, Senator Obama is ripe for dissection and revelation as veneer with no solid wood beneath.

For his part, he's reminding voting Americans that they've been through the Bush years and have no stomach to repeat them through the auspices of yet another Republican who supports many of the decisions that the current president and his cronies made on behalf of a reluctant country, now set to pick up the pieces for a long time to come. "Bush or McCain don't have the real answer for the challenges that you face. So what they're going to try to do is make you scared of me."

Yes, that most certainly. But they're also insisting that the gracious, hope-inspiring verbiage that so entrances Senator Obama's supporters are throw-away trinkets. While Senator McCain's message is solidly rooted in reality, promising solutions to tackle real problems. One candidate proffers the sunshine of optimism, the other a sobering vision of tedious and tendentious liabilities that must be tackled before the sun comes shining back.

That, in the end, is the real message that Americans have to sort out for themselves.

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Improvidently Egotistical

How else could it be characterized than a conflicted, flawed personality's past improvident behaviours consistent with a large ego, coming home to roost?

Of course, when people are convinced - high-powered people who have the public trust and are discovered to have been rather less than trust-worthy - that they represent the single candidacy to resolve a nation's problems, the necessity to present as a resolutely honest broker is somewhat beyond them, when their character is fragmented to the extent that Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's appears to be.

So he is stepping down, finally. Took long enough. He was unabashedly certain of himself even when the Winograd Commission's finding, although not pointing a finger directly at the prime minister, appeared to convince the Israeli public that he was the wrong man in the wrong place at the wrong time. His determined approach toward solving the Israeli-Palestinian low-grade battle, to find a diplomatic solution that would leave both, the country and the would-be nation, agreeable to accepting the distance of sovereignty hasn't endeared him to Israelis, either.

They feel he's prepared to give somewhat too much away in the difficult negotiations. He's convinced he's the only hope to salvage the current stand-off, with the "personal" touch he's established with Mahmoud Abbas. And the ongoing on-again, off-again, currently Turkey-sponsored talks with Syria where that country insists it will only come to the bargaining table one-on-one when Israel submits to their pre-requisite of surrendering the Golan Heights doesn't bode well for Israel's future security in the minds of many.

What's left, admittedly, without some measure of success in those overtures, is the status quo. Continued embitterment, ongoing attacks by proxy terror militias, as well as by Fatah/PA recruits whose lifelong indoctrination in the martyrdom-distinctive honour of the struggle against the imperialistic aggressor/occupier, will simply filter through into the country via other channels, now that a physical barrier is all but completed.

So it can certainly be said, in spades, that if any head of any nation had a difficult task in steering his country toward a future without the ongoing threat of annihilation hanging over it - either through the auspices of a neighbouring government's stated determination to succeed in nuclear "sufficiency", or a combined and synchronized invasion by land and by sea when Palestinian militias, supported and armed and encouraged from without, finally see their way clear to yet another, perhaps more successful attack- it was his.

He could have been a contender, Ehud Olmert. He will not go down in the annals of Israel's history as a resounding success. Instead, infamy will redound in his name. According to the investigating authorities: "The investigation (Friday) is expected to be difficult and uncomfortable for Olmert. "He will be confronted with evidence and documents that have accumulated against him, and it is a fair assumption that he already understands that this involves substantive evidence."

Yet he will not take ownership of his malfeasance and the dreadful damage he has done to his country, let alone the position of the prime minister as a consequence. "I have made mistakes and I regret it", he says, mournfully, now that he has accepted the reality that he must resign. But he spreads blame in a wide arc, in his own defence: "From my first day in office, I was forced to ward off malicious attacks, even while dealing with far-reaching decisions affecting Israel's defence and existence", he complained bitterly.

A not too-subtle reference to his failures as head of the country. For implicit in that statement is his belief that had he not been so beleaguered with personal woes, so tied up with having to defend his reputation, the potential for his having reacted differently at critical times during his tenure - say, for example, during the Israel-Hezbollah-Lebanon war - might have meant an entirely different and far more palatable outcome to the conflict. So that too, wasn't his fault, but rather the fault of his tormentors.

A sad end to a career that might have been far different had the person so committed to his country, so devoted to his office, so determined to succeed, been capable of restraining his egotistically entitled frame of reference as a person of influence who parlayed that influence into a mechanism that profited him in the most inexcusably illicit and unethical way.

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Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Saving Subsidies

It's a tough call, isn't it? Every country needs its primary food producers, its farmers to thrive. What is a country without a viable agricultural base? When push comes to shove, it's the farmers, the producers of the country's food that should be of primary concern; that they are able to work the land, produce the food that the population requires, enabling a country to be reliant on the most vital of its internal food sources.

There are so relatively few people in developing countries still farming in the traditional way. The family farm is still there, but barely hanging on. In under-developed countries farming is a subsistence occupation, albeit a highly critical one. The farms of today are largely huge corporate affairs which have succeeded in sheer scale of purchase-power and crop yield through the use of mono crops and ability to transport yields internationally.

Countries of the world, recognizing the vital importance of a needed farming demographic, give subsidies to their farmers as encouragement, as guarantees of sustainability through state economic support. At times subsidies result in situations where successful yields equate with an over-abundance and farmers can be paid not to produce. Control is the issue; supply management.

There's another issue, that of international farming groups reaching agreement with developing nations to grow crops not generally grown for internal consumption; meant specifically for export. The national governing body reaps the benefit while the people see no benefit; land traditionally used to grow crops for home consumption given over to export yields.

The 9-day Doha round of talks in Geneva just concluded won no hard concessions from the gathered 153 countries represented by the World Trade Organization. The original aim was to help the poor nations of the world enter markets where they have been locked out due to farm subsidy protectionism by developed countries.

In the end the industrialized countries couldn't agree to give up their agriculture tariffs and subsidies.

Canada's position represented a philosophical conflict, if not a downright ingenuous hypocrisy. It's all for helping developing countries, but remained resolute that it would not surrender its protectionist policies that ensure dairy, poultry and egg farmers are well protected from cheaper imports. The government position was opposed by the Canadian Agri-Food Trade Alliance which represents export-oriented sectors.

But the government had the last word. Despite that its position actually harms Canada's credibility in asserting it's prepared to bring down barriers in trade. Canada's a bit player, however, and it really came down to the United States and India, the real heavy-hitters, along with China, which balked at coming to mutual agreement.

India called for lower import surge levels to protect their millions of poor farmers from starvation. That didn't suit exporters. The United States is ardent about its farm subsidies, particularly on cotton. Trade restraint measures didn't fly. Common sense doesn't always prevail as countries do what they have always done; circle the wagons to fend off potential inroads by interests other than their own.

'Tis the way of the world.

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Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Energy Warriors

Who might have imagined in this tipsy-turvy world that in the battle for the environment in the face of Global Warming and scientific uncertainty whether or not it's truly man-made in its extremities, that the band-aid solutions seen thus far to attempting to slow down spewing of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere would impact in such an uneven manner as to raise the ire of anti-poverty groups? Well, yes, it could and should have been predicted.

In a sense, it was. The scientific community of environmental experts has warned that low-lying areas of the world will become increasingly susceptible to flooding and even permanent inundation. That already-poor nations will be beset by conditions they will be incapable of dealing with. That agriculture in extreme-weather-vulnerable countries will be direly impacted. That such vulnerable geographic areas will become uninhabitable.

That the already great hordes of migrants, both economic and political, fleeing unstable and dangerous situations, will increase exponentially, becoming a flooding humanitarian burden on the rest of the world. The developed world that will suffer far less, and because of their geographic placement and economies will appear a haven for desperate refugees. It will clearly become the obligation of those who can manage the strain, to welcome as many migrants as feasible.

So much for looking into the future of environmental degradation and its potential impacts. And then there's the present, the current situation where people are being encouraged to muster alternate resources, to carefully determine how they use those resources, and to refrain from unwise choices leading to further environmental degradation. People are travelling less, using less energy.

Governments have turned to the increasing use of biofuels, and wind-generated energy, and solar-generated energy sources. In the process, the higher cost of conventional fossil-fuel sources of energy have impacted dreadfully on production costs, on transport costs, resulting in higher food and other consumables' costs. So while the middle-class has seen a gradual rise in their expenditures for necessities and it is annoying, the poor, with their low, fixed income are in pain.

Amazingly, a coalition of anti-poverty groups in the United States, led by African-American civil rights and faith leaders are targeting the blame at their own legislators, complicit with oil interests, along with "extreme" environmental organizations who are leading the battle against conventional energy sources toward national sustainability. They're urging the abandonment of restriction of "dirty oil" sources, like tar sands.

The new campaign, "Stop The War On The Poor", has its spokespeople explaining "We favour any and every energy source. We do not believe in this artificial game that the radicals play of pitting the so-called bad energy versus good energy. All energy, when prices are as high as they are, which is such a critical resource and the life-blood of a nation's economy and the survival of people, is good energy as far as we're concerned."

And there you have it. Restrictions, they avow, through increasing climate-change legislation in the United States, has caused speculation with the predictable result that oil prices have spiked to levels sufficient to "strangle" the poor. The alliance claims to represent a large cross-section of Americans, the economically disadvantaged from all backgrounds, as well as farmers.

Pointing out that the poor are impacted more than any other segment of society. With far less disposable income, they're forced to make difficult choices between food, fuel, and medicine. All are necessities. Paring down to the barest minimum of what seems increasingly unaffordable in a faltering economy will have a dreadful final impact on the health and well-being of the poor.

America's reliance on "dirty, dwindling and dangerously expensive" oil, in the words of Senator Obama, is a predicament he hopes to be able to solve, should he be elected president. But these aren't the words of hope that this coalition of anti-poverty groups want to hear. The alliance plans to "out" environmental extremist groups as well as the politicians that support them, including Nancy Pelosi.

And that includes too, the country's Washington-based Natural resources Defence Council, whose favourite whipping target is oil-sands-derived "dirty" oil. The alliance points out that poor American families spend half of every income dollar on energy as opposed to the five cents of every income dollar spent by the country's middle class. Clearly, a lot of anxious heads have got to come together to iron this one out.

Some accountability required of big-oil interests would go a long way to persuading anti-poverty groups that they're on the wrong track. But one doubts they are. It is U.S. government policy that biofuels are part of the solution, yet figures released by the World Bank concluded that biofuel, low grain inventories related to biofuel production, speculative activity and food export bans have pushed food prices up by 70% to 75%.

Complicating things even further is the weaker American dollar and the whopping half-trillion U.S. treasury deficit wracked up so far this year.

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Monday, July 28, 2008

America's Arrogance, Russia's Defiance

They're both geographically large countries, each with their share of natural resources. Their politics are adamantly at odds, their populations long accustomed to a vastly different social, cultural standard of expectations. Russians gruffly suspicious, down-to-earth, boisterous in their continual state of inebriation. Americans given to the religious experience, cleaving to independence of spirit, callously indifferent to the rest of the world.

One the world's only super-power, (but others speedily bringing up the potential rear). The other resentful of its precipitous fall from status and struggling to pick up where it left off. Americans expect much from their leaders, bouncing from one political party to the other when their leadership invariably fails to support their ideals, the American dream of success. But they remain basically a liberal democracy, a respected political, sometimes-feared power.

Russians cleave to their vision of individual power, strength of a resolute, sometimes mysterious-seeming, often ruthless leader. They need the assurance that the kind of nationalism and respect that feeds their self-respect will be assured. Determined belligerence goes down very well. Brutalism plays well there, societal degradation is simply fact in many ways. And a political master who hied from a brutish police environment rings true.

Imagine an American president being silently complicit in the murders of reporters brave enough and foolish enough to waive their personal safety for the revelation of presidential and government corruption and brutality? In freedoms-assured America assassination teams would have to be working full-out to capture and silence the voices of all its president's critics.

In Russia, where its president signed a decree leaving his intelligence agents free to pursue internal and international assassinations as justice meted out to those considered guilty of slandering the country's president, the population is not unduly concerned. Like turtles, they pull in their heads and draw themselves into tight little unconcerned entities of unknowingness.

Russians admired their ruthless leader; he confered pride upon all Russians through his adventures in silencing, controlling, worrying and wearying their former satellites. They blossomed under his autocratic rule. Feel comfort that he remains at the head of government, with another title, same authority. All the more so in the present economic climate of trickle-down wealth.

It could have been different, perhaps it might have been if the U.S. hadn't felt so cockily arrogant about the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the penury in which the country found itself, the avuncular head-patting they received from America, and little else in the way of encouragement or practical assistance. From an initial good-fellowship accord, to the misery of re-visiting Cold War hostilities.

What else could be anticipated from a proud nation brought low? The current U.S. administration deliberately permitted opportunity for a prolonged detente to slip through its careless fingers. Consider: Condoleeza Rice, that exemplar of diplomatic action with her academic success leading to her political ascendancy - and her background in Russian studies.

Did she assess the growing distemper of the times? Did she, who purportedly knew so much about what made Russia what it is, advise her president? What an abysmal failure in temperance, tolerance and diplomatic action. Could she not foresee the response of a leader of a great country, feeling aggrieved by having a stubby finger-in-his-eye poked once too often?

That country, which could have been brought into the fold, whose rough edges could perhaps have been smoothed with sufficient exposure to civil tolerance and democratic freedoms has been allowed to regress back into brutality. Useful alliances for good in the world, trashed through a lack of foresight and intelligence.

How long will the tentative alliance between Russia and China last? Had the U.S. been more thoughtful and quietly, helpfully assertive, rather than reverting to old-world politics of separation, suspicion, denial and isolation, the opportunity might have been there to help Russia become far better than its relapse reveals.

The current problems with countries like Iran might have been attended to differently, with greater emphasis on regional co-operation, more pressure from traditional allies, securing the potential for success. Instead, now, the solitudes have returned to their former positions and the world is much the worse for it.

Too bad, much too bad.

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Sunday, July 27, 2008

Re-Imaging and Re-Imagining Obama

That's what happens, one supposes, when a country is that fractionated, that conflicted within itself. Historically, socially and politically, currently. They're looking for solutions to problems inherent in a society that continues to suffer from itself. Its reluctance to live how it urges other countries to live. That great democratic, social experiment in justice and egalitarianism has been anything but, for far too long, for far too great a number of its population.

The nation's simplistic view of itself as a great nation - which it most certainly is - and the keeper of their brother-countries' well-being, as a benevolent but heavy-handed super-power hasn't brought it much satisfaction of late. America believes itself to be an exemplar of decency, and for the most part it is. Americans are given to a solid belief in religion, they're superbly attuned to corporatism, they're alertly entrepreneurial, fairly well educated.

But completely devoid of any real human interest in other countries of the world, as irrelevant to their needs. Unless somehow they perceive themselves to have been insulted or their values assaulted or their mass culture derided, at which time they take stiff note and erect a wall of indifferent hostility. Individually, they're like anyone else, same human emotional needs. They're sublimely racist, but would rather not be, pulling toward idealism, regardless.

America the country, America the people, really represent decency, an overweening will to good behaviour. It helps that they're overwhelmingly given to a fervent belief in an afterlife and good deeds guarantee an invitation to proceed past the pearly gates. Americans want to believe that they have discovered among themselves a candidate for the highest political office in the land who embodies everything they would like themselves to be.

Law-abiding, patient, thoughtful, intelligent, enterprising, understanding, intrepid, courageous and determined. Barak Obama has arisen out of obscurity to present as their conscience, to promise a better time for them, and by extension for the world at large. For as America goes, so too goes the better part of the world. When it's in fine fettle, its friends enjoy the fall-out, when it's angry, other countries try to make themselves inconspicuous.

Americans are taciturnly optimistic. When they're not being obliviously pushy. Unlike their neighbour, Canada, which is more inclined toward phlegmatic pessimism, tinged on occasion with a sour lack of appreciation for their obstreperous neighbour. Canadians are lugubriously cautious, Americans more inclined toward wholesome, enthusiastic incaution, carried away by the momentum of their self-satisfied conceits.

Senator Obama tells them that they - with him guiding them - are capable of turning the current chaos in the world into sweetly disciplined order. His ephemeral language engages the poetic imagination, his hearers leaping into the grace of belief as though he represents a divine mission that only he, and they, are capable of bringing to fruition. Deliverance from all the nasty problems that beset Americans, and by extension the world at large. Through the auspices - oh divine grace - of a black American.

Believe in peace and harmony and it shall result. Be thoughtful and kind and no one will ever presume to question your motivation. When he lectures his belief that it is possible to "ensure that every child, everywhere, is taught to build and not to destroy", his audience is enraptured. It is, he informs his listeners, America's destiny to promote dignity everywhere in the world - along with democracy. Elevating them to the status of deliverers through his projection.

America's mission is to "lead the world in battling immediate evils and promoting the ultimate good". The unity of humankind. As though that might become reality. As though he has the power - the power of positive thinking - to invoke within humankind an understanding that we are one, and together we can confront any manner of adversity that threatens us. Global warming? we'll tackle it together. Religious and socio-political misadventures? no problem, together.

The growing presence of world-wide terrorism? The good and the righteous will form an indissoluble bond and together will bring evil to ground, disrupt it and break its hold on the imaginations of weak, easily-led malefactors and bring them to heel. The world will be re-made, re-structured, realized in the image of America the Good. First, of course, America must become Good.

And through Barak Obama that opportunity is laid before that yet-imperfect society. Belief triumphing over reality resulting in a religion of peace and global brotherhood. Colour-blind, blissfully accepting. It might be possible if humankind were structured otherwise psychically, emotionally, less flawed by its impervious, completely neutral maker. But his words have a soothing, healing effect, however distractingly brief.

His belief in self is astonishing. His own declarations seem like a personal aphrodisiac. Empowering him. The reception he was given abroad, particularly in Germany ramped up his self-regard to even greater heights. Is it, after all, he who should be criticized for amorphous statements which can conceivably be construed any which way? Enabling him, with great verbal agility and mental acuity, to claim himself to have been misunderstood?

Not recanting, but re-phrasing. Making intelligible that which was so obviously misunderstood. Is he a master of sleight-of-verbiage, an impostor, a charlatan, a sham, or is he who he believes himself to be? Is it conceivable that this wisp 'o the wind is really a more complex persona than his detractors hold him out to be? His presidential showmanship a mere lapse in judgement?

Take, for example, this description: "He's much more thoughtful, much more interested in discussion, debate and dialogue than the typical politician. And that gives me some confidence about him, even though from my perspective he's much too liberal." Is that damning with faint praise? From a die-hard republican, a former colleague, a very conservative Chicago law professor?

Can we get beyond the adoring public cheering on this new iconic figure in U.S. politics who aspires on their behalf to be elected to the Oval Office? You tell me. Time will deliver the ultimate truth.

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Migration Central

It's quite simply amazing how many immigrants a country like Canada is capable of absorbing. The idea being that since the indigenous population is barely replacing itself - and the economy is in dire need of attracting a greater number of people to jobs that are going unfilled - what natural childbirth has been remiss in providing for, encouraging emigration from abroad will provide for. If only it were that simple.

Astonishingly, it appears to be that simple for a country like Australia, which exercises strict self-discipline in its selection process. Requiring would-be immigrants to have a working knowledge of the language, and to possess sufficient professional credentials to make them attractive to the country as future citizens. They lay it all out neatly, and don't appear to suffer too many surprises, as a result.

Needless to say, that kind of restrictive empowerment leads to homogeneity in the origins of successful immigrants to the country. They're far and and away mostly represented by - no big surprise there - immigrants from British-based education systems, with English-speaking backgrounds. In a sense, hearking back to their origins; only now instead of criminals building the country, professionals from abroad do.

Europe hasn't been quite as successful. It has accepted emigrants from countries with which it has had historical ties as one-time colonialists, and hasn't seemed to be able to absorb them very well. Neither first, second, nor third-generation immigrants appear to have been entitled to equal treatment in education, employment and social programs, though they're citizens. And the results are predictable; indigent ghettos, and violently resentful youth.

Compounded by the fact that many immigrants were initially brought over as temporary labourers, and somehow found ways to remain in the country. They were exploited as cheap labour, they had few civil rights, were denied security, yet opted to remain. Because as problematical as their existence was there, it was far worse in their home countries where poor economies and internal strife made life truly miserable.

Canada sees itself as a potential home for many of the world's migrant populations. Because it's the right thing to do. As a prosperous country we have an obligation toward those people whose lives are fraught with danger living in countries where civil wars have ravaged their countries, or where tyrannical rulers have made a misery of their lives, or where dire living conditions as a result of struggling economies have encouraged them to look elsewhere.

Canada encourages people with professional accreditation and experience in many fields to consider Canada as a destination for their children's futures. Not appearing to make it sufficiently clear to star-struck candidates with high expectations for emigration that their professional diplomas may not live up to Canadian standards and they most likely will be unable to work at their original professions.

And then there are the refugee claimants who are permitted to live in Canada while their claims are adjudicated, and when, in due time, their status is denied and they are informed they must leave the country, those whom the Immigration Refugee Board has turned down may turn to the courts to re-consider their cases.

Desperate people learn pretty fast; perhaps not the intricacies of the English language, but an understanding of their legal rights. And immigration lawyers do a booming business representing refugee claimants' interests. The result being that the Federal Court of Canada has been swamped with such hearings, which now represent fully 76% of the court's full caseload.

Immigrants have traditionally selected Canada's largest cities to settle in; Toronto, Montreal, and Vancouver. As well as, increasingly, smaller cities, those the size of Ottawa, the nation's capital. Considering that the immigration-load represents almost a million aspirants for Canadian landed immigrant status every few years, that's a lot of people.

Social services become truly strained, since municipalities must deal with the charges upon their limited resources. Which includes assistance for housing, employment training, language lessons, and health needs. Area schools are burdened with the need to integrate children whose grasp of English may be non-existent.

But perhaps the worst element of this entire complex story is that increasingly, immigrants appear to feel less of an interest in, let alone respect for the country's prevailing culture, social mores, history and political institutions. Which is a far cry from the past when new immigrants saw it as an imperative to absorb as much as they could of all of these settlement needs, to enable them to integrate into their newly-chosen country.

Canadians consider themselves fair-minded and conscientious people, concerned with others, and more than willing to give other people a break. Groups of human-rights and church associations will often go out of their way to invoke the humanitarian needs of others, and to pledge themselves materially and effort-wise to settle hapless people living in squalid refugee camps in their countries of origin.

Yet, there's often a price to pay for this type of outgoing concern for others. Schools become crowded with children aspiring to learn a difficult language, while Canadian children, sharing the classrooms, are held back by the educational needs of immigrant children. And while elements of the home-country traditions and cultures and religions are officially welcomed, there are some portions that should be left behind in the forging of a new identity.

Not the least of which is the epidemic of gang violence that has sullied the back streets and downtown assisted housing projects of cities like Vancouver, Montreal and Toronto. In Toronto in particular, gangland killings have become a dreadful problem, with gangs representing ethnic groups becoming violent predators on one another.

With the gangs erupts the perennial problems linked to crime. And with that bleak exposure children are also exposed to violence at a young age, to drug use, to rejection of the education system, to becoming not only the disadvantaged, but a growing threat against society at large. It's a dreadful conundrum and one that's complex, and won't wane on its own volition.

All societies are beset with problems of inequality, of social dissent, of the entitled and of the neglected. Canada has a leg up on solutions to these seemingly intractable social problems because of its legal system that advantages all its citizens, because of its inherent recognition of egalitarianism, because of its political and social dedication to justice.

It's time that the country's political, social and legal arbitrators take their responsibilities seriously and begin leading us toward a reasonable solution to a currently troubling situation.

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Saturday, July 26, 2008

Busting a Gut for Afghanistan

UN-affiliated and NATO forces agreed to enter Afghanistan in the wake of the U.S.-led invasion that routed the Taliban that had so horribly victimized the population of that eternally war-torn country. Its backward social system, its tribal and religious strictures against modernity and equality between the genders, its endemic poverty and hopelessness inspired Western countries to combine their resources in an effort to instill hope and provide the opportunity for progress.

It's been a very long, uphill battle. Initially the invasion took place because the Taliban leadership had given refuge to al-Qaeda, with their shared revulsion for the West. Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda were routed along with the Taliban into the barren and wild mountain tribal territories between Pakistan and Afghanistan, when the U.S. moved on to Iraq.

Leaving other countries' military to pick up the pieces, attempt to build civil infrastructure, defend the country at the request of its new government, from a resurgent Taliban. Five years later, much has been accomplished, and much has yet to be resolved. There is no guarantee of final accomplishment. The Taliban appear capable of dissolving into the background, them re-appearing with increased dedication.

The NATO forces are compelled to remain until Afghanistan's own military and national police force is deemed sufficiently capable and prepared to look to their own interests. Meanwhile, while the military appear to be shaping up as a viable military force for the country's future, its police, also responsible for security, continue to be seen by ordinary Afghans as corrupt, unreliable and complicit with the Taliban.

Gradually, under the tutelage of foreign soldiers, the Afghan National Police are beginning to assume some semblance of professionalism. From a state of presenting as a motley self-interested crew representing poor training, poorly equipped and led, they're finally emerging, it's hoped, as a force to be relied upon. With a whole lot more work yet to be done to ensure their full capability and reliability.

At the same time in Kandahar City and elsewhere in the country women are being enticed to educate themselves. This, in a country where traditionally the role of women was to be in the background, raising children and working in the fields, devoid of social opportunity much less an education. Aid agencies have developed a plan where women who agree to attend classes, to learn how to read and to write and become numerate, receive badly needed food.

Bi-monthly, women attending discreet classes - held in private homes to avoid raising critical responses in a society still beset with ancient traditions that formally victimize women - are given cooking oil, lentils, salt and wheat in amounts sufficient to sustain their families. The hope being that gradually, educated women will see the need to have educated children, helping to bring the country away from its misogynistic roots.

And then there is Afghanistan government infrastructure, and the ruling governing council, led by president Hamid Karzai. Who is, in effect, a virtual hostage of his own cabinet, many of whom are former warlords, many of whom were aligned with the Taliban, many of whom have blood on their hands, many of whom continue to enrich themselves through the poppy trade.

He may himself represent an individual of good character who earnestly strives to represent the best interests of his struggling country and his impoverished people, but he is wholly dependent on the continued co-operation of those of his colleagues in high places whose best interests are served in protecting the poppy trade.

While the United States, Canada, Great Britain, the Netherlands, Poland and other NATO countries spend countless millions upon billions on aid to Afghans, and on building the required civic infrastructure for an emerging, democratic-leaning country, Afghanistan remains the world's largest producer of heroin through its poppy production.

Corruption in the country is endemic, almost impossible to eradicate. Subsistence farmers are understandably loath to give up profitable poppy crops in favour of edible crops which render them far less of an assured living. They're not discouraged from growing poppies, despite efforts by the U.S. to deploy many of its service members in destroying traditionally planted poppy crops.

Riches are gathered in by corrupt officials at every level of governance; federal, provincial, municipal. And here's the real kicker: the Taliban stuff their war coffers with proceeds from the sale of poppies for heroin, reaping great rewards from their own belligerent support of the illicit world trade.

And that's the absurdly vicious cycle that prevails.

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Tat Trumps Tit

The world owes much to the stabilizing effect internationally of its sole super-power. It does provide that edge of security to much of the world. Its sheer power of determination and the power invested in its huge economy, its political system, its tentacled outreach in the form of military outposts across the world, give it that reluctant solidarity position.

Although the countries that form an alliance with the United States love to gripe and to criticize and to emphasize its great flaws as the supreme world leader, they do depend on it. It is a force for good in the world. Despite the proliferation throughout the world of its mindless consumerist capitalism that tends to emphasize the divide between those that succeed in its system and those who fall by the way.

That it is a bastion of freedom, however, is undeniable. That, on the other hand, it often swaggers on the world stage and unilaterally imposes difficulties on a large swath of the world's geographies is also true. The United States singly funds more programs to aid and assist the underprivileged portions of the world than any other country or collection of countries. It has also been responsible for the deaths of many innocents through its military invasions in its struggle for the defence of democracy - and just incidentally its bottom line.

It holds itself up as an example of what a democracy should reflect. Freedom of religion, of association, of speech. Freedom to explore opportunities to advance oneself in a society that bows to egalitarianism. Conflicted within itself, its minorities long emancipated, slavery a shameful thing of the past, racism remains an expression of distrust and of contempt; alive and too well. It still remains a geographic, political icon of a generous and well-meaning people.

Which doesn't at all minimize the grievous missteps and truly dreadful errors in judgement that great country has been responsible for. It's at one time the symbol of a humble force for good in the world with its emphasis on justice and equality (which like most countries officially espousing those sterling values, tending to abuse them) and on other occasions becomes the blandly determined bully whose intervention in world affairs occasionally results in complicating issues beyond resolve.

Still, the alternatives as a world leader of great power aren't all that very compelling. Better the irritable, albeit somewhat predictable beast we know than the one we know would impose upon us something far, far worse. So it is that the United States has signed agreements - some enthusiastically agreed to by the host country, others reluctantly signed on to by the country that would really rather not - enabling it to construct forward bases in its defence, political and resource-based-extraction interests.

Much to the fury of, for example, Russia. Politically and economically resurgent Russia. Itself newly aspiring to assume that pinnacle, so hastily and disastrously (for the Soviet Union) abandoned. Russia is anything but complacent with the unalterable fact of its once-allies now lining up for membership in the European Union, in NATO, and allying themselves with the interests of the United States by allowing it to install military bases on their geographies - let alone ballistic missile installations.

Understandable, perfectly understandable. And then there's the hostility between the United States and Cuba. Cuba, which was and remains a client state of Russia. Where Russia had its own forward base. And where the United States has been installed, through a long-lease agreement with Cuba well pre-dating Fidel Castro, at Guantanamo Bay. A veritable thistle in the saddle of Cuba. Which would far, far prefer to have the U.S. leave, thank you very much, restoring total geographic ownership to Cuba.

How moral and ethical is it in any event, for a foreign country to occupy a signal portion of a relatively small island-state's geography? And so obviously against its grating wishes? How much weight does a long-term agreement hold in view of the problematical relationship between the two countries? In particular, given the long-term trade embargo instituted by the United States which has resulted in a truly deleterious effect on Cuba's economic well-being?

So now that there are hints of Russian plans to potentially resume flights of its long-range bombers to Cuba the clouds above the horizon have suddenly darkened in anger. The result being that the U.S. is now warning Russia of repercussions should the move proceed. "We should stand strong and indicate that that is something that crosses a threshold, crosses a red line for the United States of America", huffed General Norton Schwartz before a U.S. Senate hearing.

Well, oh well. When Russia huffed and puffed and complained about the U.S. plans for its missile defence shield in central Europe, right on Russia's doorstep, that just wasn't on. Easily shrugged off by Washington. The Kremlin is simply giving them a little of their own medicine.

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Friday, July 25, 2008

High (Hushed) Esteem

Canadians are proud of their armed forces, of the outstanding service the forces are providing in Afghanistan, determined to have a hand in the securing of a decent future for the people of that forever embattled country. Canadians have always been proud of their servicemen and women. The Canadian forces have had a long and distinguished record in the history of contemporary world battles against fascistic and brutally autocratic regimes that sought to enslave populations within and without their borders.

But Canada also has a deep and abiding shame related to the manner in which one portion of their armed services represented this country in the early 1990s in Somalia. Dispatched to try to bring some semblance of order and safety to the Somalian people suffering through a brutal civil war, it would appear that no attention whatever was given to the need to ensure that Canadians had some understanding of the culture and history of the country, and that they were there to help.

Colonel Serge Labbe was tasked to lead Canada's 1992-1993 mission to Somalia. At the time he was highly regarded as a capable and up-and-coming figure in the Canadian Forces. Unfortunately, the Canadian Airborne Regiment, once a highly-regarded and well-trained troupe, had fallen into disrepute as a result of serious disciplinary problems, acknowledged to have been a problem before their mission in Somalia - and continuing throughout their deployment there.

During the mission, in a war-torn country where the population was facing starvation, on several occasions Somalis had been lured into the Canadian camp with the promise of food and water, and when they attempted to retrieve the bait to have them illegally enter the Canadian camp, they were fatally shot. And a young Somali, 16-year-old Shidane Arone, became a play-puppet for brutally racist paratroopers seeking to allay their boredom by creating some excitement.

They tortured the young man, whose cries of agony were heard by others, but not responded to, as he was dying, calling out "Kanada!" in agonized disbelief that those respected Canadians whom he honoured and who were sent to help protect them from the atrocities being meted out by Somalian militants, would be the death of him. It was also rumoured that Somalis had been killed "execution-style" by a Canadian soldier.

A Canadian military surgeon, horrified by what he understood to have occurred, raised an alarm, and demanded an enquiry. The result was that the federal government announced a public enquiry to enlighten themselves and the country at large about what exactly had occurred in that Canadian military compound in war-ravaged Somalia. The enquiry was a civilian one, to ensure that no military bias once it became clear that a cover-up had already been undertaken - by Colonel Labbe, among others.

An initial military enquiry was accused by the surgeon, Dr. Barry Armstrong, of having organized a cover-up of the dreadful occurrences, leaving the Canadian minister of defence no option but to call a civilian-led enquiry. All the military who were questioned, from the leading general to the actual witnesses offered pallid excuses found unpalatable by the commission of enquiry. And allegations were made that the lead officer, Serge Labbe, had encouraged his men to brutalize and murder Somalians.

He was never charged in connection with any of the incidents the commission was looking into, and strenuously denied ever having encouraged his men to have acted illegally and inhumanely. Despite which, the Somalia enquiry reached the conclusion that then-Colonel Labbe had exercised poor and inappropriate leadership. He had, they concluded, failed to ensure Canadian troops under his command were properly trained and aware of the Geneva Conventions.

In short, he failed dismally in his duty as a commander. His career, however, was obviously not over. And the Liberal Chretien government decided to close down the commission of enquiry prematurely, as the results were proving to be increasingly embarrassing both to the government and to the armed services. And despite the dreadful shame of Canadians in realizing that a contingent of their armed services had disgraced the entire force, Colonel Labbe felt the operation had been a "highly satisfactory" deployment.

Amazingly enough, he career did not suffer, other than that he was passed over for promotion on a number of occasions. He was assigned a key position at NATO, and in the mission in Afghanistan. He worked closely with General Hillier, latterly the much-admired and highly respected Chief of the Defence Staff, now retired. And they obviously found they had much in common, in their close working relationship. So much so that General Hillier promoted his colleague.

A result of which the soldier who had failed so abysmally as a leader in Somalia - as to have been condemned in his commanding role there - has quietly been promoted to the rank of brigadier general. To be retroactive - no less - to 2000. He will, therefore, be eligible for a huge whack of back-pay, all of which will reflect very handsomely on the outcome of his pension on his imminent retirement.

Before himself retiring, a review had been ordered by General Hillier into Colonel Labbe's file. On the basis that there "may have been an oversight in the years following 1998", according to an email from the Defence Department. What was once indefensible has become a defensible oversight. "The rationale for the promotion was based on an overall assessment of performance of the individual in his rank, relative to that of his peers."

If that is so, then the Canadian public might begin to worry about the general level of responsible leadership attaining in the ranking hierarchy of the Canadian Armed Forces.

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Thursday, July 24, 2008

Conspicuous, Wasteful Consumption?

We're all guilty of wastefulness in our consumer society. We're more aware now, and are being encouraged to do all manner of little things to address the careless manner in which we waste our resources. Don't use plastic shopping bags; re-use them if you must use them, but preferably use more durable devices to carry goods from place of purchase to home. Recycle or re-use. Refuse to purchase items which have been too obviously packaged beyond need.

So it's more than a little amusing to read a musing article written by a reporter who had attended the Group of 8 meeting which just latterly took place in Japan. Some of the most urgent topics addressed by that influential group of eight nations was the state of the international economy, and also the state of our declining environment - along with the relentless rise of oil prices, and with it attention given to ever diminishing resources.

What particularly struck the reporter was the sheer exuberant plethora of packaging he observed while he was in Japan. Not that only, but the feverish consumerism displayed in Japan itself; the people of Japan are wildly enthusiastic consumers. Despite that they live in tiny, cramped apartments and homes, they seek out the latest gadgets, and discard those that have outlived their newness, not their utility.

While the government of Japan proclaims itself to be embracing the "less is better" or "waste not, want not" divine scripture of devoted environmentalists, what is seen on the ground is anything but spare necessity. Attendees at the summit were laden down with lavish gifts, from DVDs to books, to wristwatches. The Japanese have an ingrained and well-defined love of nature. They adore green spaces and the forests and mountains that surround their teeming cities.

But they are also inextricably wedded to a fascination with consumer products. Entire urban areas in Tokyo, for example, are devoted to the sale of footwear, cookware, electronic gadgets, watches, motorcycles - to the exclusion of any other goods. And everything is carefully displayed and encased and wrapped. The Japanese are fond of giving "presents", even to themselves, so when they purchase an item, presentation is vital to its enjoyment.

Everything must be individually wrapped, not once but several times over. I used to wonder at the sheer wastefulness of it all, well before the current sentiments of the green environmentalists who now decry our wasteful lifestyles. And then I watched, utterly fascinated over the succeeding years, as I noted that in North America the Japanese way of packaging appeared to have triumphed here also, over common sense.

So even while the government of Japan has whole-heartedly taken the message unto itself, and does reasonably expect that it will follow the environmental dictates of using fewer resources needlessly, it doesn't stand up too well to close scrutiny. Enterprising Japanese are able to take ideas that emanate elsewhere and refine them to produce truly amazing results. They're fully capable of developing systems that use alternate resources little thought of for their practical utility.

And on the other hand, continue to indulge their culture of conspicuous consumption. It has indeed become a vital portion of the Japanese culture. It's a sense of refined and delicate attention to details, and those details include beautiful and clever and wasteful packaging. Along with a devotion to the very latest creations, be they electronic or other elements of personal ownership of goods, packaged or otherwise.

And isn't that just about as human as you can get? That we want everything we can get our greedy little hands on, yet we wish also to be responsible and responsive to the obvious need to desist in misusing our dwindling natural resources.

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Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Illusions and Opportunities

The righteous of the world believe they can overcome evil by confronting it, identifying its sins against humanity, holding it to account, judging and sentencing it to due penance. Take a life; take as many lives as you like. Give your own as a down payment for forgiveness. The court of world opinion surely overturns the meager support offered by a clique of like-minded supporters. You can run, but you cannot hide forever. Some kind of justice will eventually prevail. Or so goes the hope.

And the most staunch supporters of a nationalistic bully, an intransigently impenitent mass murderer will, over time, decide they have alternative options open to them. As options of alternative opportunity nothing, but nothing trumps economic advantage. Serbia has voted in a new government warmer to the West, and suddenly the image of the country as a pariah suffering the results of isolation and sanctions takes a 90-degree turn.

The massive upheavals with the dissolution of Yugoslavia with Bosnia, Serbia, Croatia finally free to express their traditional tribal loathing for one another treated the world to yet another massive break-down in civil authority and its resulting, unstoppable, brutal slaughter. No one who represents the persona of world-class infamy disappears off the face of the earth without someone knowing where they are, what they're doing.

When the time is right, the right timing makes its surprise opportunity to offer up a down payment on future respect and belonging. A nice start is the dissolution of all those tariffs and quotas Serbia has been labouring under, impacting on its trade and export potential. Despite the country's grievances against the EU and NATO supporting the recognition of independent Kosovo, it's ready to desert its champion Russia for this opportunity.

This "unseemly step", characterized by Russia's Gennady Zyuganov, as the result of "every form of rude political, economic and media pressure put on Belgrade by the West", will offer to Serbia the opportunity to rescue its exhausted economy through its future as part of the European Union. They give up Radovan Karadzic, they receive the promise of a bright economic future.

No contest.

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A Pact Of Desperate Evil

It's a difficult decision. Do you agree to somehow overlook the most vengeful, hate-filled and heinous crimes against your people, with the assurance that, having made that decision to just let it be and not demand justice and accountability, the depraved assaults and murders will be halted? In so doing, do you agree to swallow your disgust at the atrocities committed by a murderous tyrant? In so doing, do you become his companion in governance?

But then this happens time and again. The world manages, somehow, to look the other way, knowing that yes, a monstrously evil man has wrought great damage in his predatory determination to remain in control of a nation, sacrificing helpless victims to his greed and ambition, but not having the means to uproot him from his aerie, placates him instead, in the hope that the dark forces within will be stilled and there will be no further victims.

And how often does that meet with success? World condemnation never arrests the determination of murderous tyrants for very long. Silence is seen as complicity. And interpreted as validation and a green light to proceed further. Did Adolf Hitler, Josef Stalin, Pol Pot, Kim Jong-il, Idi Amin, Mao Tse-Tung, and now Robert Mugabe really give a damn how they were regarded outside their fearful inner circle?

So it is that South Africa's Thabo Mbeki feels his diplomacy and delicacy of approach has succeeded in averting further disaster in Zimbabwe, by bringing together the obdurately evil Robert Mugabe and the determinedly unsuccessful Morgan Tsvangirai. To forgive and forget. To form a unity government. Together to govern that desperate country with its collapsed economy and miserable population.

The good news is that many now feel they have reason to believe the atrocities will come to an end, the violence abated. The refugees may return to their burnt-out villages and farms, to mourn their dead. The wounded and the tortured will learn to live without limbs, and make the most of what life they have left. Robert Mugabe's entourage, his militia, his police, may re-commence their corrupt rule.

And the African Union and the Southern African Development Community can breathe a collective relief that they can no longer be accused of sheltering a world-class criminal. Zimbabwe's neighbour-countries can be relieved of the intolerable burden placed upon them by the influx of desperate Zimbabweans fleeing the violence and turmoil, the poverty, and the endemic threat of disease.

A civil manifesto has been agreed upon and duly signed. All forms of violence will cease. Respect will be offered. The safety of the displaced will be assured. Above all, the threatened international humanitarian and social welfare organizations may return to their thankless tasks of rendering assistance. The hitherto estranged parties shall refrain from bellicose accusations and hostility.

Intolerance is a thing of the past. A miraculous re-awakening has blossomed and the spiritual, political, social desert that is Zimbabwe is set to bloom into a prosperous future. This is Africa. Dire situations can turn on the head of a pin.

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Tuesday, July 22, 2008

In The Spirit of Enterprise...

What this? A young woman from Peru who was granted refugee status along with her family in 2001 now ordered to be deported from Canada? What's the matter with Canadian authorities? Can't they recognize the true entrepreneurial spirit when it's so ably demonstrated? How perfectly unreasonable, to offer refuge, then yank it away. How utterly disgraceful. Shame, Canada.

After all, the woman, Shirley Palomino Baltazar (how resoundingly poetic, another star in her favour) has honoured a number of Canadian cities with her presence. She's obviously peripatetic and enterprising in nature. Shouldn't that spirit be encouraged? Don't we need more of that kind of enthusiasm? Oops, no you say?

She's done what? No kidding. Connected to what? Really!

Now it's becoming a trifle more clear. In visiting Montreal, Toronto, Ottawa and Vancouver she hasn't really been paving the way for the installation of new business interests at all. Silly me, I simply misunderstood her motivation. She's part of a discreet and discrete organization, it would seem. Not dreadfully structured, but awfully effective.

Their successes won't ever leave any of them in a state of impecunious dependence on the country's welfare system, in any event. (That statement will come back to haunt.) Even if, in the prosecution of their enterprise, the end result may be to leave their victims somewhat less well endowed with cash and possessions. Ms. Baltazar's enterprising group has been responsible for committing countless thefts.

Availing themselves of goods valued into the stratosphere of riches beyond the daydreaming hopes of most Canadians. Guess we're just too loftily law-abiding. Or lazy. Or uninspired. Too complacent, sanguine, that's us. Just toddling on our way, doing our thing. Leaving the action to refugee claimants who know how to get things done.

The family - goes that old turkey of an assurance - that steals together stays together. Or not. For even though her mother is suspected of harbouring the avails of massive thefts, it is her daughter only at this point who has been selected by the authorities for deportation. Just think of it, jewellery theft; robbery as people leave banks cash in hand; grabbing handbags at airports, hotels and tourist locations.

They've got everything covered. Armed robberies, thefts from hotels, vehicle thefts. High-end clothing valued at a half-million garnered in two raids on properties rented by this clever little organization. Stolen credit cards, fraud galore. Now here's the down-and-dirty part that gets this cranky old Canadian woman gritting her teeth. She's supported by Canadian welfare.

No kidding. And on those generous welfare cheques she has flown to Colombia, Argentina, Peru and Uruguay. To pursue business interests, naturally. Aren't we so dreadfully generous with our refugees? And look here, there's a husband, equally talented at illicit but extremely well-rewarded activities. And two half-brothers, also part of the gang, also being readied for deportation.

Like, wow! But look here, we're committed. We offered refuge, we can just pluck it away. Can we? Ms. Baltazar, after all, fears for her life if she is forced to return to Peru. She is innocent, completely innocent of all charges brought against her. Case closed.

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Beware The Urgings Of Ardent Friends

When it is politic or socially agreeable to state so, out they come, professing their undying support and admiration. Your friends are their friends. Your enemies are their enemies. Mostly because they truly are, but that's another story. A rather awkward one, in a politically correct atmosphere of neutrality until dire necessity proves otherwise.

Israel is like the canary in the mine. She's out there, vulnerable, forever susceptible to the ongoing provocations of violence. Violence in the typical overblown rhetoric that passes for reasoned debate in the Middle East. And violence as practised by hate-mongers for whom Israel's presence in that sacred Islamic territory remains anathema.

As the sole outsider-nation within the larger community of Muslim states most of whom remain defiantly, bitterly, resistant to her presence, Israel's is a rather lonely albeit courageous existence. As the only truly representative liberal democracy in a region ruled by tyrants, dictators, oil sheikdoms, monarchies and fundamentalist-crazed theocracies she remains an insult on the collective body politic.

Semitic, yes indeed, but definitely not of the tribe. In celebration of her 60th anniversary, however, a succession of tentative well-wishers have come and gone and will continue to land temporarily, to observe the landscape and the passing scene, lend their undying support, condemn signal elements of the country's basic survival needs, and move on.

Britain's Gordon Brown, for example, urging Israel to "make key concessions" to the Palestinians; to "grasp the chance" for peace. Speaking before the Knesset Britain's prime minister leaves no one guessing at the depth of his commitment to Israel, nonetheless offering up his "honest analysis". Being that Israel must do more to assist the Palestinians in the occupied territories and withdraw its settlements there.

Consolidating his concern and his friendship with the assurance that "For the whole of my life, I have counted myself a friend of Israel. Britain is your true friend." Nice, if it were so. Nice to think it to be so. So sad to be persuaded otherwise so very often by proceedings erupting from that fair isle. Interesting too, how blind Israel's supporters deliberately make themselves to her reality of existence.

No mention made of the sincerity in suing for peace of the Palestinian Authority, but great support given equally to its Fatah President, Mahmoud Abbas. On whose behalf an official Fatah spokesperson said on PA TV "the Fatah movement sends warm blessings to Hezbollah, to all the resistance and to the Lebanese nation, and the Palestinians for their historic victory over the Israeli arrogance in their victorious July war..."

And just in case the message wasn't sufficiently clear: "And on the return of the heroes of freedom, the heroes and the Martyrs, headed by the great Samir Kuntar and the martyr fighter Dalal Mughrabi, who led the most glorified sacrifice action in the history of the Palestinian-Israeli struggle.

"The Fatah party vows to the Palestinian people that Fatah will continue to struggle in the way of the pure Martyrs, until the state is liberated and the Palestinian state is established with Jerusalem as the capital. The Fatah movement turns on this day that abounds with sincere blessings to Hezbollah. The battle against the theft of Palestine is the battle of all the fighters and all the Arab nations.

"Blessings to the free heroes and their head, the heroic fighter Samir Kuntar, and blessings to the spirit of the heroic Dalal Mughrabi and to the friends of the heroes. President Mahmoud Abbas congratulated yesterday's exchange of prisoners and bodies of Martyrs. The president sent blessings to Samir Kuntar's family."

Another unfortunate, inconvenient truth, that Israel must bargain in good faith with the Palestinian Authority, for a peaceful resolution of the situation that resulted when the Palestinians refused the UN's offer of partition to result in an immediate state of their very own. The terrorists that prey on Israel and her people are recognized as heroes and martyrs by the Palestinian Authority, yet Israel is urged to be more compassionate.

Why isn't the Palestinian Authority and Mahmoud Abbas being urged to reconcile themselves with the reality of their own failure? To re-structure and re-arrange their violent demands, to authentically commit themselves to peace, to responsibly act in the best interests of the people they claim to represent? To disavow terrorism, and the plague they continue to encourage on their neighbour.

Britain's Gordon Brown might do well to lend an attentively sincere ear to Benjamin Netanyahu when he stated at their meeting the truth on the ground: "Further Israeli concessions in Judea and Samaria will strengthen Hamas and will enable the construction of another Iranian base in the heart of Israel."

Fact is, the situation is a puzzle inside a conundrum inside an intractably irreducible maze of incongruent impossibilities.

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Meeting Lofty Standards

There's that about the European Union; in a concerted effort to remove differences, to broaden opportunities and level the playing field, everything is regulated, every country held to the same rigid standards of performance and production. Complete uniformity is the order of the EU, and let no one think otherwise. In the process of meeting those standards, ages-old production methods, tried and true and representing pride of accomplishment are abandoned.

That's one of the prices to pay for standardization, for insisting on an unassailable level of neutralized conformity whose purpose is to strengthen unity, and present a common facade to the world at large. Mind, a whole lot of people thought they were going a little too far, taking things to extremes when agricultural standards became rigidly imposed on the entire unit. Standards that would impose perfection of shape and size, for example on the shapes of fruits and vegetables.

Crooked cucumbers? Discard, immediately, not up to standard. Carrots resembling a forked tongue, horrors, never! Bananas too awkwardly and suggestively curved - into the compost bin! Discard, discard...! Selectivity for perfection of aesthetic appearance, let alone standards for taste and transportability make for a very testy market, with farmers no doubt cursing shape-obsessed bureaucratic decision-making.

And then, and then, the impracticality of all that wasted food suddenly impales the European Union on the painful stench of waste through its absurd search for perfection in a world suddenly discovering itself to be in the throes of an acute food shortage. As of almost now, the European Commission will take steps to reform its strict governing on such vital matters as the uniformity of leek colouration, and the shape and size of melons.

Britain, Holland, Denmark, Sweden and Germany are all for reform of the rigid standards, while France, Spain, Italy and a few others are on the opposition end of the spectrum. In the meantime, the prevailing strictness of the standards are such that thousands of tons of fruit and vegetables are discarded annually because of an unsupportable, perceived inadequacy in conformation.

So farmers toss tons of cherries, onions, peas, plums and spinach, along with a host of other fresh-grown market edibles. Market traders, even if they proceed to bring these "inadequate" types of produce to market find themselves black-listed because their sale is disallowed by current regulations, and they've no choice but to swallow sales losses. Kiwi smaller than allowed? Ditch them.

The light of reason has dawned. "In these days of high food prices, it's silly to throw stuff away", claims a spokesperson for the commission, now. "It doesn't make sense." Well, the question they might be asking themselves is, did it ever make sense? Was it ever less than a waste? Did it ever represent anything but arrogant condescension to consumers' needs?

With the clout of the EU and their sanctimonious agonizing over world food shortages, why wasn't this food, ostensibly not good enough for sale, shipped to where it could be used, by food-desperate people? Those whose governments have had to brace themselves against the desperate anger of hunger expressed through food riots. This isn't a generous gesture, to offer excess or unwanted food, it's a prime obligation.

Facing reality and owning up to senseless bureaucratic stupidity, the commission should shamefacedly allow that it's criminally absurd to discard tomatoes, apples, pears, strawberries, lettuce and kiwi fruit because of a perceived lack of aesthetic appeal. When even minimum standards aren't met in conformation, these foods can't even be sold as second-class produce.

To do so would reflect poorly on the truly ridiculous standards that the European Commission has imposed on itself. Ech! Waste not, want not.

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Monday, July 21, 2008

Quick! Which Hand Is It?

It's a classic left-hand, right-hand situation. But then, one supposes that's an always-present element of war.

Despite modern communication capabilities and technology, people are people and they're obviously not always cognizant of their obligations toward their colleagues. Which wouldn't be so serious if there were not such dreadfully final consequences. Doesn't seem all that complicated, come to think of it. To be aware that you must contact allied troops or friendly entities to inform that you'll be entering their territory.

Lest they mistake your entry for that of the enemy. With predictable consequences. Each side mistaking the other for deadly antagonists and reacting accordingly. There's a rather absurd term for the consequences: "friendly fire". Friend or foe, the end results are the same; someone ends up dead. Sometimes lots of someones. Every war theatre has its casualties resulting from inadequate preparation and communication between allies.

So there we go again. In Afghanistan, where the situation is, in any event, always tense, fraught with danger, and where allied forces battling a hardened insurgency as determined to reach success as the allies are to ensure they will no longer be able to assert control of the country. Consequently, falling victim, time and again, to improvised explosive devices, or lightning attacks by the Taliban.

This time Afghan and international soldiers moved into an area without first informing the area police who naturally enough took them for militants. "An engagement took place, each side thinking the other was the Taliban", explained the deputy governor of the province. And here the international brigades of armed forces are always complaining about the unprofessionalism of the Afghan police.

"Nine police were killed and five wounded" goes the report. After the troops called in air support, and after military attack aircraft arrived to bomb the offending police post. Rather a clumsy way to gain the trust and support of the local police, already hard beset by ever-encroaching Islamist extremists. And of course the U.S.-led coalition forces explained that they and the Afghan forces were acting in self-defence.

That they had inadvertently and "unprofessionally" been responsible for having been fired upon is another story. They saw themselves being attacked by a "non-uniformed hostile force". A wary, fearful yet professionally-reacting force might perhaps be a more accurate description, under the circumstances. Unfortunate as they most certainly were.

"The combined patrol signalled their status as coalition forces, but continued to receive fire" went the report. "Coalition forces then returned small-arms fire and engaged the enemy with precision close air support."
So they pounded them into insensibility. Their initial clumsy lack of diligence in informing the police of their intent to enter the area simply handily overlooked, and the crisply bland explanation sufficing for exculpation.

Well, of course, it's not just Afghan police and on occasion Afghan military personnel, but also civilians who quite often fall victim to "friendly fire". As do coalition member-forces, when trigger-happy airmen spotting manoeuvres in an area they're not supposed to even be in, and take the initiative to bomb the hell out of Canadian servicemen. Or, in the case of a British helicopter recently opening fire in Helmand province, injuring nine of their own.

NATO's International Security Assistance Force has been implicated in tragic errors of commission when they interpret wedding parties as insurgent groups and turn rural celebration into utter tragedy. Apologies are swiftly forthcoming, along with the observation that more civilians greet their maker by Taliban attacks than those of the coalition forces. This gives great comfort to the mourners.

Coalition forces admitted to killing eight civilians meant to target militants. Another report has it that 64 civilians were struck dead in two strikes earlier this month. One of these strikes hit a wedding party, turning it into a funeral for 47 people, including the bride; certainly not the first time this has happened. And on it goes. Prevention through care and resorting to respecting their own rules of conduct seems somehow to evaporate in the reality on the ground.

The miasma of war.

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Sunday, July 20, 2008

Taking It On The Road

All eyes on Obama. Has slogans, will travel. He and his campaign have been inordinately successful thus far in persuading the voting American public of the youth and educated demographic that he's their man. He's different, his agenda is forward-looking and socially emancipating. He's the man for their season of national agony. And those Americans who keep abreast of international news must most certainly be aware that all eyes are on America.

In fact, Europe and Asia and the Middle East appear to be holding their collective breath in admiration and anticipation. What a bold move America is demonstrating; that it is capable of rising above the nasty spectre of racial discrimination to embrace a candidate for the highest office of the land whose personal history embodies all those traits that America most fears. Foreignness is anathema to presidential aspirations.

Middle-of-the-road with a hard nudge at the right crook just before you reach that great American divide, will do it. Normally, that is. But really incredibly twisted decision-making that compelled the country to follow its leader on yet another international invasion of yet another country that happened to tweak its nose, and that great unstoppable free market gone awry has left a taint, a very bad taste in the mouth of America.

Surely we can do better! went the anguished cry of a population sick of sending their youth off to war. Look at us, we're really suffering! went the anguished cry of a demographic that felt it too was as entitled to all the pleasures and real estate ownership and the consumer goods of those who could pay for them, although it stretched their resources far too tightly. Living for the moment, as consumers, and dying for the country's honour, as military conscripts.

So when Barack Obama stands tall and righteously proclaims himself America's long awaited messiah, one can almost imagine that nimbus cradling his courageous head. Promises, promises, but no experience? New to the international stage? He's off to Iraq, Afghanistan, Jordan, Israel, Germany, France and Britain. So there, ye of little faith.

Gone he is, to lavish upon those destinations his undeniable charm and charisma, his valiant offering of self as a gift to America. By which American pride will be restored and respect for that great country's accomplishments and history will be restored to pride of place in the world body which has of late seen it instead as tediously tired and flagrantly bullying. Although nothing much new there.

The "we" in "We are the people we've been waiting for" is travelling abroad to resuscitate America's image abroad. Actually, to give hope to the international elite that a more amenable, less combative United States will evolve. Less fractious and obstreperous on the world stage. More studied and nuanced in its approach to the vexatious problems constantly erupting; social, political, religious, geographical.

He will slip U.S. troops out of Iraq and leave a satisfied Nouri al-Maliki to offer a one-hand clap to American intervention and diplomacy. Those troops will shift into Afghanistan where more body bags will be shipped, just in case. But the timetable for departure will be set, and no mistake. He will take himself to the West Bank - avoiding Gaza - and assure Mahmoud Abbas that America will not abandon the Palestinian people in their time of need.

He will visit the Wailing Wall and slip a piece of white paper into the crevices there, chiding God for allowing the travesty of injustice to carry on so wearyingly long. He will explain confidentially to Shimon Peres and Ehud Olmert and Ehud Barak that indivisibility needn't necessarily mean sole guardianship, that flexibility and open options are the order of his day, along with day-later corrections.

He will embrace Nicolas Sarkozy and fist-bump that energetic busy-body, nudge Gordon Brown as they cross one another's paths, while assuring Angela Merkel that he would never have dreamed of campaigning for public office at the Brandenburg Gate; awkward miscommunication does occur, alas. He will be careful and measured, and statesmanlike, eminently so. And the American public will devour all the plaudits and gushing praise reported by Senator Obama's touring U.S. reporting entourage.

There's nothing quite like U.S.-style show-business. It's like no other business, until compared with politics.

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Looting the Treasury

The continent of Africa is the world's second largest. Within that continent lies 53 separate countries, comprising the whole. The population of the continent is over a billion people. Most of whom live in varying degrees of poverty, despite the developed countries of the world pouring massive amounts of aid dollars into the continent, country by country. The 19th and early- to mid-20th century of African colonization by European countries has long been blamed for the social and political retardation of the continent.

Countries as diverse as France, Italy, the United Kingdom, Germany, Belgium and Portugal have had a long and rather inglorious history of occupation, all concerned with procuring for themselves and their treasuries the vast natural resources that reside on the Continent. From Morroco, Libya, Swaziland, Burundi, Benin, Rwanda, Egypt, Zanzibar, Algeria, and more, Europe drained the continent of as much of its internal riches as they could. It was quite simply there for the taking. In the process, enslaving the people of Africa to their will.

Not to mention centuries-earlier raids on the continent that gained Europe - with the considerable assistance of Arab traders who themselves enjoyed centuries of black slave labour - millions of African slaves, taken over the oceans to Europe and North America and their geographic holdings to work out their unfortunate lives in misery, on cotton and sugar plantations. Thousands of black Africans died en route to their countries of destination, and on their arrival were considered beasts of burden, and treated in much the same way.

That historical fact is simply another milestone in the inexhaustible history of the cruel and inhumane treatment humans are capable of meting out to one another; another black sinkhole of shame. But is it really the reason that independent African countries have been incapable of governing themselves well and assuring their populations of a decent measure of life's opportunities? White liberal guilt would have it so, but perhaps the facts point elsewhere.

Not to trivialize the unsupportably cruel maltreatment of Africans by Europeans, for it remains what it will always be regarded as, an atrocity of immense proportions. But African leaders have had ample opportunity to demonstrate their measured and considered concern for their countries and their peoples, and they continue to fail, miserably. Religious, sectarian, tribal and political strife continues to prey on the helpless majority.

And one African leader after another has demonstrated the meanest incapacity of governing in the interests of the populations they lead. Tyrants, dictators, monarchies, tribal leaders, they all somehow tend to lose their way once they've ascended to the heady opportunities of ultimate power. They manipulate, and take unto themselves the treasures of their countries - including development and sales of natural resources, and humanitarian funds gifted from abroad.

Gabon's president Omar Bongo Ondimba is merely one of a long list of corrupt leaders who have enriched themselves and their supporters and their families, leaving their vast populations to pick up their own pieces of despair and need. Mr. Bongo and his familial entourage own hundreds of millions of dollars-worth of mansions abroad, and countless fleets of expensive limousines. Payment for which emanates directly from the country's oil-rich treasury.

He and his wife simply write cheques drawn on the Gabon treasury for their luxurious purchases. This conscienceless, entitled plundering of a country's resources is a common enough occurrence in African countries. It's well-known internationally. International humanitarian aid groups that raise millions in the never-ending battle to feed famished African populations know it, and so do countries like France which welcome these kleptocrats.

While African has no monopoly on misgovernance and corruption, of the 53 separate countries on the African continents, fully 50 are states where poverty remains ingrained and is on the rise. This, despite that the developed world has Africa on its mind and has earmarked funds to attempt to ameliorate the desperate living - and dying - conditions for Africans. At one time Asia and India were also countries whose vast populations lived on the desolate knife-edge between life and death.

In the present era, we've seen world poverty on the decline, and both India and China, each country boasting populations equal to the entire continent of Africa, have slowly, over a surprising four decades, lifted their population from certain death to modest prosperity. Yes, there is still massive poverty in the vast countrysides of both countries, but the advances each have made is nothing short of amazing, despite inherent social and political problems in both.

Whereas in Africa the situation continues to fester, year by year; "By the turn of the millennium they were poorer than they had been in 1970", according to Paul Collier, in his recently published "
The Bottom Billion: Why the Poorest countries Are Failing and What Can Be done About It". The analysis and statistical synthesis Mr. Collier brings to his scholarly treatise slams the prevailing finger-pointing at the causative of colonialism.

Instead the conclusion he has reached points directly to internal factors which include rampant corruption, political- and military-coups, ongoing civil wars, the happenstance of geography, and malevolently unconscionable governance. According to Mr. Collier: "We cannot rescue them. The societies of the bottom billion can only be rescued from within. In every society of the bottom billion there are people working for change but usually they are defeated by the powerful internal forces stacked against them. We should be helping the heroes."

The African Union itself, the coalition of African countries insisting on their capability to govern well, collectively and singly, has been signally incapable of putting a stop to the ongoing wars in Somalia, in Congo, in Sierra Leone; they've been fairly useless in Sudan, and their continued fractious support of Robert Mugabe's murderous regime has brought them no honour. Their witless lack of courage in directly addressing the countless problems assailing African countries, most of which can be laid at the clay feet of misgovernance is pathetic.

Yet special advocacy groups located within Europe and North America, which have created neat little dynastic corporate entitlements for themselves as African-charity-specific charity businesses, claim African poverty as their bailiwick, and their prescription evolves around catastrophic solutions, solving nothing at all. Doling out aid - food and medicines - here and there in the most desperate areas. They're little band-aids, sops to the conscience of the West. While the work they do does help some of the desperately needy, it's temporary in nature.

Ongoing commitments to Africa in the form of financial aid simply evades the ongoing problems there. The food aid and pharmaceuticals meant to assist, ends up conscripted for sale on the black market, to fill the pockets of local government authorities. Cash assistance goes the same unsavoury trajectory, higher up on the entitlement chain, with bits and pieces of assistance reaching random desperate groups, as the government decrees. Without doing anything to solve the long-term, endemic problems.

Mr. Collier recommends a different, new initiative. To open up regional and international trade that would, he feels, over a length of time, assist local governments with job development to gradually diminish poverty levels. Seems a logical enough, and simple enough initiative. There would still be graft and corruption, but the level would also be dependent on success in encouraging agricultural and technological advances on the ground.

Peculiarly enough, while Western colonialism is a shameful event of history, emerging economic giants like China are looking to Africa - along with some of that continent's Middle East neighbours - for agricultural land-lease. Deals which fatten the bottom line of the countries' leaders, but do nothing to provide either employment or the fruits of labour for indigent, indigenous Africans, since China looks to use their own Chinese labourers as part of the deal.

Can one visualize the vast poverty-stricken and disease-assailed underclass of Africa rising as one in righteous anger over the deliberate neglect they suffer from their sanguine and very wealthy leaders?

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Saturday, July 19, 2008

Horror Breeds Horror

The world reeled in disbelief at the bloody carnage in Rwanda when the dominant Hutu population turned against their Tutsi neighbours and slaughtered them relentlessly, despite the presence of a UN peacekeeping force that proved incapable of sheltering the helpless Tutsi population. General Romeo Dallaire has recounted the horror of that time in history in his "Shake Hands With the Devil" account of the massacre of Rwandan Tutsis.

General Dallaire was tasked by the United Nations to enforce a peace agreement between the government of Rwanda and the rebel forces of the Rwandan Patriotic Front. The government was largely represented by Hutus, the rebels by Tutsis. A reversal of fortunes for the Tutsis, who under the former Belgian colonial rule were the dominant tribe, with the Hutus subservient; the Tutsis were given the plum government jobs, the Hutus languished.

A reversal of fortune between the two tribes took place before Belgium left Rwanda as imperialism died a needed death, but the antagonism between the tribes merely flourished, becoming deadlier with time as aggrievement and resentment bred hatred. A not-unusual situation anywhere in Africa where tribal affiliation generally led to aggression against tribes competing for status and recognition resulting in greater economic opportunities for the successful tribe.

General Dallaire soon understood that despite the facade of peace negotiations the governing Hutu had no intention of reaching a detente, but planned to eliminate their Tutsi rivals, making use of propaganda to turn the Hutu - who had largely lived in peace with their Tutsi neighbours - against them. As is usual in such tribal societies young men were being successfully inculcated with an unstoppable ideology of entitlement and were prepared to attain their end by engaging in mass murder.

The Rwandan genocide followed in the footsteps of another failed UN peacekeeping mission, in Somalia. The ferocity of the atrocities there remain unabated with an Islamist insurgency leaving over a million people internal refugees. When Rwanda's Hutu president's airplane was shot down by ground-to-air missiles in 1994, the ruling Hutu launched their deadly rampage against the Tutsi and moderate Hutu population, wiping out almost a million people in three months of battle.

When the bleeding finally stopped and intervention came rather late in the day, Hutu militias made their way elsewhere to avoid arrest and incarceration. Like South Africa, Rwanda set up a "truth and reconciliation" commission for the purpose of having survivors face their tormentors, apportioning blame and equable sentencing, and allowing forgiveness so everyone could go back to living together in peace and harmony.

The process, while flawed, has since resulted in normalcy assuming its position in the life of the country. As though the wildly lunatic mass murders had never taken place. And now life has become so "normal", so devoid of fear, that sorrow has been drowned in attempts to trivialize and minimize the horror of 25 years ago. Now beauty pageants take their place in the life of Rwandans, post-genocide. How sublimely human.

For comfort we unerringly turn to frivolity. The Miss Nyampinga contest has taken a place of honour, a search for the ultimate in Rwandan female beauty. The beauty pageant is being hailed as a device to perform two national services; advancing equality of the sexes and assisting national unity. "The contest encourages women to assert their intelligence and personality, through intelligence and personality", according to the founder of the Miss Nyampinga competition which takes place at the National University of Rwanda.

"She must be pretty, in her face and body...she must have small eyes but we don't look at the nose. Here in Rwanda, we have a problem with the nose". Most certainly, since the shape of the nose was signal in identifying Tutsis during the 1994 genocide. From the inchoate murderous history of neighbour turning against neighbour, religious clerics fomenting against the "others" and encouraging their flock to murder, comes beauty pageants to heal the wounds.

So where has all that murderous dementia evaporated to? Congo. Where a collection of militias resulted from the exodus of Hutus from Rwanda assembling to become the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Congo. Who busied themselves, among other things, roaming the countryside of the Democratic Republic of Congo, murdering and raping as they proceeded. The Congolese government army has links with the militias.

Efforts to disarm and repatriate the former Rwandans have been beset by obstacles. Upon apprehension, Congolese government authorities attempt to hold them accountable for the murders and rapes of Congolese civilians, rather than send them back to Rwanda. Meanwhile the chaos that has resulted in Congo has infected the civilian population to a great degree. Atrocities are common and seemingly unstoppable.

Attacks on the civilian population by the Hutu militias fleeing Rwanda drove hundreds of thousands of villagers into squalid disease-ridden internal refugee camps. Malnutrition is rampant, and children become mortally ill through exposure to filth. And around the camps and the villages thousands of women and girls are continually raped by government soldiers, rebels and militia fighters alike, according to international aid groups.

And the ongoing sexual violence that began with the fighters appears to have infected the local population, making neighbour turn against neighbour, that all-too-familiar pattern. "Now there are more and more civilians that are the perpetrators. It appears that it's almost infiltrating within the culture", according to Jennifer Melton, a program manager for the International Rescue Committee.

The United Nations speaks of its diminishing ability to provide adequate food rations to the internal refugee camps, because it is unable to deal with the increasing flood of displaced Congolese. "Thousands more people have run for their lives in recent months and are now in urgent need of help", according to Charles Vincent, director of WFP's Congo section, pleading for assistance from the developed world.

The families who had formerly relied on subsistence farming to feed themselves have been forced to miss critical planting seasons due to the war. Militias continue to loot food supplies and farming equipment. Villagers are increasingly being pushed off their land and into refugee camps by a Tutsi general's forces, along with those of the Hutu militias. What, exactly, has been solved?

Africa, one country after the other, becomes an abysmal failure.

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