Canada Foreign Policy
Wednesday, August 30, 2006
  Jack and Gilles

If you thought Canada’s military is overstretched, under funded, and barely capable of making its commitments in places like Afghanistan, you’d be wrong. At least, that could be what NDP leader Jack Layton might have you believe. Layton, who used to advocate that Ottawa needs to send peacekeepers to Darfur, has accessed “an internal government document obtained through access to information laws that he said shows that Canada has military capacity to spare.” Good news for Darfur? Well, not necessarily, as Layton now argues Ottawa could dispatch up to 1,200 peacekeepers to help enforce the Lebanon ceasefire. “We have the capacity, but the prime minister hasn't said so…We have asked the Harper government to, first of all, tell the truth.” According to Harper, Canadians are demanding that peacekeeping role in the Middle East: “It's an important objective for Canadians…They want Canada to be concerned with peacekeeping” [CP, 28 August 2006. Story posted at CTV News at].

Before this July, chances were that no parliamentary leader would think too seriously of turning his attention to foreign affairs as way of lifting party fortunes at the Tories’ expense. But Layton isn’t the only one to come to the conclusion that exploiting foreign policy issues may help at the polls.

Leader of the Bloc Quebecois, Gilles Duceppe, now says the honeymoon with the Conservatives is over. And, he insists, the Tories have no one to blame but themselves and their “amateurism.” In fact, Duceppe suggests Tory ineptitude will prompt Quebec voters to re-examine their support for the Harper government, and when the next election is called Conservatives should not be surprised if their base in La Belle Province were to evaporate.

This time, it isn’t only social policy that might sink Harper. According to Duceppe, Harper is making critical errors in foreign policy, mistakes which promise only to alienate the PM from the average Quebec voter. “He’s [Harper’s] aligning himself more and more with (U.S. President George) Bush and that goes against Quebec’s values,” says Duceppe. It is the cocktail, the combination of social and foreign policies that may prove lethal: “Duceppe cited as examples the war in Afghanistan, Harper’s rejection of the Kyoto protocol on climate change, the idea of making 10-year-olds criminally responsible and the unresolved problem of the so-called fiscal gap between the federal government and the provinces. ..The Bloc leader also said the war in Lebanon shows the gulf between Quebecers and Harper, who showed strong support for Israel at the start of the month-long war” [cited from ‘Honeymoon Over, Duceppe Tells Harper,’ CP, 28 August 2006. Story reprinted by The Toronto Star and posted at].

But just how well would Duceppe fare in a foreign policy debate? Undoubtedly he would not be without his critics. Already his appearance in Montreal on 6 August 2006 at what has been dubbed a “pro-Hezbollah” demonstration has attracted attention and drawn fire. Alan Baker, Israel’s ambassador to Canada, upbraided the Bloc leader for his participation in the rally, sending a letter noting “shock and disappointment” and saying “I find it inconceivable that the leader of a major Canadian political party lends support and associates his name and that of his party, to a demonstration that glorifies a terror organization that has been outlawed in Canada and that shamelessly seeks the elimination of the state of Israel” [quoted in John Ward’s ‘Israeli Ambassador Blasts Bloc Leader for Joining Hezbollah March,’ CP, 15 August 2006. Story reprinted in The National Post and posted at].

Posted by Stan Markotich
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Monday, August 28, 2006
  In Trouble?

There may be a very good reason why Canadian politicians are reluctant to talk about foreign policy, openly or otherwise. Very simply, when they attempt to do so, they often manage to find themselves in trouble with either the public or their party, or with both their party and public.

Earlier this month PM Stephen Harper seemed to be floundering. He made remarks during the 34-day Israeli-Hezbollah conflict that caused his popularity to dwindle and, some suggested, make it next to impossible for him to hope to form a majority government, either now or way off in the future. Very briefly, Harper, in acknowledging that Israel had a right to self-defence, observed that country had taken a “measured” response against Hezbollah. He made the remarks shortly after conflict erupted on 12 July 2006, but as the war dragged on, fewer and fewer Canadians seemed to share this opinion, triggering the slide in Tory fortunes.

But it was until about the 22nd of August that the Liberals had a deputy foreign affairs critic; his name is Borys Wrzesnewskyj. In late August, he was in Vancouver attending a Liberal Party retreat, an event that ought not to have fuelled negative press for the party. But the Ontario MP, who had only a week or so earlier gone to Lebanon on a fact finding mission, bravely, perhaps misguidedly, ventured an opinion on the Middle East which included the foreign policy insight that Canada might wish to consider holding talks with Hezbollah. The trouble, and perhaps Wrzesnewskyj was unaware, is that Hezbollah, under Canadian law, is deemed a terrorist organization.

Reaction to what Wrzesnewskyj said was immediate, scathing, and almost all of it came from fellow Liberals. Interim Liberal leader Bill Graham, referring indirectly to what had happened, simply observed that Liberals support the policy of keeping Hezbollah where it belongs—squarely on the terror list. But at least two contenders for the party leadership, Scott Brison and Carolyn Bennett, demanded the deputy resign, and that he do so at once. Matters were not helped when some media began reporting that Wrzesnewskyj had advocated legal changes which would amount to removing Hezbollah from the list, an allegation and reports that the now former deputy critic flatly denied. The Liberal party image was even further tarnished when Tories noticed their opportunity [for a much more detailed account of the background presented here, see ‘Liberal Caucus Retreat Turns Into Middle East Debate,’ CTV News, 22 August 2006].

And so Tory MP Jason Kenney, parliamentary secretary to the PM, simply said, for the public record, that Liberal blundering showed for all to see just how unqualified to form a government the Liberal Party of Canada had become. “The Liberal Party of Canada cannot claim to be prepared to be ready to govern Canada if they can't establish a coherent position on such a clear cut issue as the terrorist nature of Hezbollah,” said Kenney, who also likened Hezbollah to the Nazi Party [cited in ‘Liberal Caucus Retreat Turns Into Middle East Debate,’ CTV News, 22 August 2006]. What should have been a quiet retreat and low-key strategy session turned into a very public nightmare for Liberals.

With Wrzesnewskyj gone, some of the notoriety has died down. And his departure came just as suddenly as the malaise he triggered within Liberal ranks. Graham, who had asked his MP to explain the meaning of the comments made, said, “He did that and in the course of doing that, he tendered his resignation as associate critic [of foreign affairs], which I accepted in the circumstances… Therefore, I consider that matter closed” [cited in ‘Wrzesnewskyj Out,’ The Globe and Mail, 24 August 2006. Story posted at].

But what about the Tories? Again, according to some sources Harper’s early position on the Middle East conflict caused support to drain away, especially in Quebec, where “a Léger Marketing poll released July 20 found that… 67 per cent of respondents opposed Prime Minister Harper's (Calgary Southwest, Alta.) decision to support Israel's armed intervention in Lebanon. Thirty-three per cent of the 724 respondents in Quebec supported Mr. Harper's position and 14 per cent did not know” [cited in ‘PM Harper’s Pro-Israel Stance Risks Winning in Quebec,’ by Simon Doyle, in The Hill Times, 31 July 2006. Story republished by Vancouver Indymedia and posted at]. In reaction, the Tories sought to moderate their tone, at first by having Harper argue his initial “measured” observation was made long before the conflict began widening [see ‘Israel-Lebanon Conflict’ in PM Stephen Harper’s biography at]. Then, for at least a few weeks, Tories attempted to stay mainly clear of the Middle East, and to refocus.

There was, for example, Arctic sovereignty to promote. In early-mid August Harper travelled to Iqaluit, Nunavut to once more make the case that exerting control over Canada’s northern frontier was key now, and destined to become even more critical in future. “This will become more important in the decades to come because northern oil and gas, minerals and other resources of the northern frontier will become ever more valuable,” he said [cited in ‘Harper Says Stronger Presence Needed to Defend Arctic Sovereignty,’ by Dene Moore, CP, 12 August 2006. Story posted at].

Then, either by design or through good fortune, the Tories blundered onto the windfall served up by social issues. In August Harper failed to attend a six-day International AIDS Conference in Toronto, prompting headline writers to “lambaste” the PM for doing so. Dignitaries and high-profile Canadian public figures joined with those making denunciations, describing the PM’s decision as everything from “inappropriate” to “a slap in the face.” UN envoy Stephen Lewis said, “In a very real way it's a slap in the face to the international community of activists and scientists and researchers and advocates and agencies all gathered to deal with the single greatest problem on the planet… Instead he (Harper) sends a surrogate health minister -- it's just profoundly inappropriate and I think it's a measure of the government's commitment to (fighting) the disease” [cited in ‘Harper Lambasted for Skipping AIDS Conference,’ CTV News, 13 August 2006. Story posted at]. For about a week the media dwelt on Harper’s decision to avoid the AIDS conference. And if they found themselves preoccupied with that issue, at least the press wouldn’t be focussed on the Tories and the Middle East.

Some observers and interested parties suggest that given the state of the world and the rising importance of international affairs, foreign policy debates may just find themselves pushed to the top of parliamentary agendas [see, for example,]. But one major party has already imploded over foreign affairs, while the other finds itself either incapable or unwilling of making the linkages between foreign policy, advocacy, and public reaction and opinion.

Posted by Stan Markotich
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Saturday, August 19, 2006
  And so why drag film, cinema into discussions about world affairs?

Thanks for all the comments, reactions and questions. A few have been wondering about a piece I posted some time ago, linking film and foreign policy. There was also the issue of great war films, and I think I accidentally left Elem Klimov’s Go and See (Idi I smotri) off my list of great war films.

But mostly the questions have been about why link foreign policy and film. I was planning to write a fairly lengthy response, but couldn’t get a brilliant essay out of my thinking. So instead of composing something, I’ll just post this brilliant piece by Michael Kaufman, originally published in The New York Times on 7 September 2003, which should answer most questions.

Michael Kaufman is one of the finest, nicest people you’ll ever meet. He’s also one of the best writers to have ever worked for the NYT. He’s authored several books, including an outstanding biography of George Soros. About a decade ago I had the great pleasure and privilege of working with Michael in Prague. It is with his kind permission that I post his essay, which is as timely right now as it was when it first appeared:

What Does the Pentagon See in 'Battle of Algiers'?


CHALLENGED by terrorist tactics and guerrilla warfare in Iraq, the Pentagon recently held a screening of ''The Battle of Algiers,'' the film that in the late 1960's was required viewing and something of a teaching tool for radicalized Americans and revolutionary wannabes opposing the Vietnam War.

Back in those days the young audiences that often sat through several showings of Gillo Pontecorvo's 1965 re-enactment of the urban struggle between French troops and Algerian nationalists, shared the director's sympathies for the guerrillas of the F.L.N., Algeria's National Liberation Front.

Those viewers identified with and even cheered for Ali La Pointe, the streetwise operator who drew on his underworld connections to organize a network of terrorist cells and entrenched it within the Casbah, the city's old Muslim section. In the same way they would hiss Colonel Mathieu, the character based on Jacques Massu, the actual commander of the French forces.

The Pentagon's showing drew a more professionally detached audience of about 40 officers and civilian experts who were urged to consider and discuss the implicit issues at the core of the film -- the problematic but alluring efficacy of brutal and repressive means in fighting clandestine terrorists in places like Algeria and Iraq. Or more specifically, the advantages and costs of resorting to torture and intimidation in seeking vital human intelligence about enemy plans.

As the flier inviting guests to the Pentagon screening declared: ''How to win a battle against terrorism and lose the war of ideas. Children shoot soldiers at point-blank range. Women plant bombs in cafes. Soon the entire Arab population builds to a mad fervor. Sound familiar? The French have a plan. It succeeds tactically, but fails strategically. To understand why, come to a rare showing of this film.''

The idea came from the Directorate for Special Operations and Low-Intensity Conflict, which a Defense Department official described as a civilian-led group with ''responsibility for thinking aggressively and creatively'' on issues of guerrilla war. The official said, ''Showing the film offers historical insight into the conduct of French operations in Algeria, and was intended to prompt informative discussion of the challenges faced by the French.'' He added that the discussion was lively and that more showings would probably be held. No details of the discussion were provided but if the talk was confined to the action of the film it would have focused only on the battle for the city, which ended in 1957 in apparent triumph for the French with the killing of La Pointe and the destruction of the network.

But insurrection continued throughout Algeria, and though the French won the Battle of Algiers, they lost the war for Algeria, ultimately withdrawing from a newly independent country ruled by the F.L.N. in 1962.

During the last four decades the events re-enacted in the film and the wider war in Algeria have been cited as an effective use of the tactics of a ''people's war,'' where fighters emerge from seemingly ordinary lives to mount attacks and then retreat to the cover of their everyday identities. The question of how conventional armies can contend with such tactics and subdue their enemies seems as pressing today in Iraq as it did in Algiers in 1957. In both instances the need for on-the-ground intelligence is required to learn of impending attacks.

Even in a world of electronic devices, human infiltration and interrogations remain indispensable, but how far should modern states go in the pursuit of such information? Mr. Pontecorvo, who was a member of the Italian Communist Party, obviously felt the French had gone much too far by adopting policies of torture, brutal intimidation and outright killings. Though their use of force led to the triumph over La Pointe, it also provoked political scandals in France, discredited the French Army and traumatized French political life for decades, while inspiring support for the nationalists among Algerians and in much of the world. It was this tactical tradeoff that lies at the heart of the film and presumably makes it relevant for Pentagon study and discussion.

But this issue of how much force should be used by highly organized states as they confront the terror of less sophisticated enemies is far from simple. For example, what happens when a country with a long commitment to the Geneva Convention has allies who operate without such restriction. Consider the ambivalent views over the years of General Massu, the principal model for the film's Colonel Mathieu.

In 1971, General Massu wrote a book challenging ''The Battle of Algiers,'' and the film was banned in France for many years. In his book General Massu, who had been considered by soldiers the personification of military tradition, defended torture as ''a cruel necessity.'' He wrote: ''I am not afraid of the word torture, but I think in the majority of cases, the French military men obliged to use it to vanquish terrorism were, fortunately, choir boys compared to the use to which it was put by the rebels. The latter's extreme savagery led us to some ferocity, it is certain, but we remained within the law of eye for eye, tooth for tooth.''

In 2000, his former second in command, Gen. Paul Aussaresses, acknowledged, showing neither doubts nor remorse, that thousands of Algerians ''were made to disappear,'' that suicides were faked and that he had taken part himself in the execution of 25 men. General Aussaresses said ''everybody'' knew that such things had been authorized in Paris and he added that his only real regret was that some of those tortured died before they revealed anything useful.

As for General Massu, in 2001 he told interviewers from Le Monde, ''Torture is not indispensable in time of war, we could have gotten along without it very well.'' Asked whether he thought France should officially admit its policies of torture in Algeria and condemn them, he replied: ''I think that would be a good thing. Morally torture is something ugly.''

At the moment it is hard to specify exactly how the Algerian experience and the burden of the film apply to the situation in Iraq, but as the flier for the Pentagon showing suggested, the conditions that the French faced in Algeria are similar to those the United States is finding in Iraq.

According to Thomas Powers, the author of ''Intelligence Wars: American Secret History From Hitler to Al Qaeda'': ''What's called a low-intensity war in Iraq brings terrible frustrations and temptations--the frustrating difficulty of finding and fixing an enemy who could be anyone anywhere, and the temptation to resort to torture to extract the kind of detailed information from prisoners or suspects needed to strike effectively. How the United States is dealing with this temptation is one of the unknowns of the war.

We are told that outright torture is forbidden, and we hope it is true. But as low-intensity wars drag on, soldiers tell themselves, 'We're trying to save lives, no one will ever know, this guy can tell us where the bastards are.' '' If indeed the government is currently analyzing or even weighing the tactical choices reflected in ''The Battle of Algiers,'' presumably that is being done at a higher level of secrecy than an open discussion following a screening of the Pontecorvo film.

Still, by showing the movie within the Pentagon and by announcing that publicly, somebody seems to be raising issues that have remained obscure throughout the war against terror.

Posted by Stan Markotich
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Saturday, August 12, 2006
  Reacting to the Middle East crisis:

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Wednesday, August 09, 2006
  Breaking news, from London:

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Thursday, August 03, 2006
  "Deadly Day in Afghanistan"

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A discussion of geopolitics and Canada's role in the world. A series of essays to examine the components of Canadian foreign policy making. Psychological, sociological, historical, and cultural variables impacting Canada's perceptions of the world.

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