Feb 29, 2012

Canada's Submarine Motivations

Vice-Admiral Paul Maddison, Canada's top navy guy, has remarked that Canada will begin the process of vetting new submarine purchases in three or four years. This raises anew questions about the purpose of Canada maintaining a submarine fleet.

After passing through much of the nineties without submarine capabilities, Prime Minister Jean Chrétien purchased four aging diesel-electric submarine from the UK. The result was an embarrassing public relations fiasco for the Royal Canadian Navy. Billions of dollars in cost overruns, an on-board fire, a crash onto the Pacific floor, a shockingly low operations rate, and ultimately - fifteen years after originally signing the lease-to-own documents - not a single day of combat ready operations from any of the four submarines. The worst is behind us for these lemons, we are assured, and operational duties are expected to continue until 2030.

With the prospect of starting to acquire replacement submarines within only a few years, the question of precisely why we need submarines demands a robust and cogent answer. Here is Maddison's comments:

"In terms of surveillance of our ocean approaches and the protection of our own sovereignty, I would consider a submarine capability critical and so to lose that for a G8 nation, a NATO country like Canada, a country that continues to lead internationally, and aspires to lead more, I would consider that a critical loss."

A middle power like Canada aims to have legitimacy and influence through engagement in the elite multilateral institutions like the G8 and NATO, where it has more prominence than in the larger UN body (note Canada's failure to secure a Security Council seat). The impetus behind purchasing shiny new submarines and F35's is not one of a reasoned analysis of domestic security needs, it is about projecting strength and capabilities so is to increase the middle power's prominence on a world stage that ranks itself primarily by military power. The higher the perception of military capacities, the more influence and relevance that Canada gets in decisions in these elite multilateral bodies.

Normally, justification for military spending is couched in terms of domestic security needs. As in, a certain capability will defend the country from some set of outlined potential threats. Analysts are left to speculate as to the real reasons based on how flimsy the ostensible defense ones are (such as the alleged defense needs of the F35 fighter jet). What is so interesting about Maddison's remarks is how plainly he prioritizes not domestic security needs, but to maintain relevance and leadership in international organizations.

Arctic Sovereignty:One of the hooks that has been used extensively to justify the F35 fighter jets has been to reference the need to promote and extend Arctic sovereignty. This is folly. Canada presently faces precisely zero military threats to itself along its northern boarder (or any boarder) and any notion that the F35's are for domestic defense is nonsense. Yes, there are land claims issues in the oil rich Arctic ocean which will be settled through international mediation, but these will not (and should not) be settled by a show of expensive saber rattling of military hardware.

A similar Arctic justification has been used regarding the submarines which can be seen as attempts to project military power in the Arctic. Plans were made to attempt retrofits to an air-independent propulsion system that would allow prolonged under-ice trips but these were scuttled due to costs and infeasibility. Russia used mini-subs deployed from surface ships to plant a Russian flag on the ocean floor at the north pole, a fact that was by Canada.

The Arctic has genuine needs in the military domain (such as search and rescue, troop and supply access vehicles to assist with emergencies, ice breakers and surveillance capabilities). None of these are best serviced by either F35 fighter jets or submarines. The misappropriation of funds to the more shiny and showy toys is doubly bad when seen in the context of taking away from these other legitimate and sorely needed capabilities.

Wikileaks and Iraq:
For Canadians, one of the most interesting revelations from the Wikileaks cable releases was one about Iraq that really underlined the relationship between middle powers like Canada and a great power like the US. While Jean Chrétien was publicly denouncing the Iraq war for its like of UN support and - backed by popular opinion of the Canadian public - opted out of the war, we see that privately the Canadian government was willing to offer extensive third party support for the war in terms of warships, planes, logistical supplies in the like, provided it was done "discretely" - that is, without public knowledge and, indeed, in direct contrast to the message told to the public.
From a Wikileaks cable: "While for domestic reasons…the GOC (Government of Canada) has decided not to join in a U.S. coalition of the willing…they are prepared to be as helpful as possible in the military margins.”
This offer was largely rebuffed by the Americans. The US didn't need any token assistance from Canada under the radar, they wanted vocal public support for the war so as to boost their legitimacy. Canada, on the other hand, was eager to try and play along and have some token influence and relevance, just as long as it didn't have to admit it to its own people it was engaged in the Iraq war. Submarines are perhaps the epitome of a military capacity that can be conducted in secret without much public oversight; it is hardly a stretch to imagine them being used in a similar way.
Read more » "Canada's Submarine Motivations"
Feb 27, 2012

How the GOP candidates choose who to attack

Ron Paul:
There has been a lot of buzz recently about the fact that Ron Paul, while viscously attacking his other opponents, seems to give Mitt Romney a free pass. And vice versa. ThinkProgress has a count which shows that Ron Paul has, despite 20 debates and 39 attacks on other candidates, has not once attacked Romney. His advertising has been targeted at Santorum and Gingrich even in states like Michigan that Paul has no hope in. 

Why would Ron Paul give Mitt Romney such a free pass? First we need to recognize that Ron Paul is not running to be the President of the United States. He has no shot of that, and knows it. He is running to promote his libertarian views, values, and ideology as well as to build his brand to pass on to his son Rand Paul. It is about shifting the conversation and creating a counter movement that may become strong enough to affect policy. There is real value in this and while I disagree with Ron Paul on many issues, there is nothing ignoble about his goal. 

The best way for Ron Paul to accomplish this, is to get a lot of prominence in the GOP race. This is why he is winning in the first place, and the better he does the better he accomplishes his goals. In a race that has perennially pitted the frontrunner Mitt Romney against the not-Romney favour of the month, the best way to get attention is to be that not-Romney candidate. An amazing result would be for him to have won or come second in a few early contests and then had the rest of the primaries be a Ron Paul vs Mitt Romney showdown. As is, with him being 3rd or 4th in terms of polls (and a distant fourth in terms of possible expectations), he gets relatively little attention; certainly nothing like what the various runner ups like Santorum or Gingrich get when they are surging. 

In order to be the not-Romney in the race, in order to be the person that Romney has to beat in state after state and thus to be the one that the media follows, Ron Paul needs to beat out Santorum and Gingrich for that status. As such, it is entirely logical that he uses his resources (time in debates, money for advertising) attacking first Gingrich and then Santorum depending on who is surging. Attacking Romney gains him nothing. Hence the asymmetry. 

Doing this can also buy Ron Paul a little bit of protection from Mitt Romney's monstrous financial weapons. Should Ron Paul devote energies into attacking Romney, Romney would be almost forced to retaliate which would hurt Ron Paul. As long as neither attacks the other, neither gets hurt and so the Nash equilibrium is for both to do nothing. Various theories about a possible deal with Rand Paul and the like seem to be entirely unsubstantiated and Occam's illustrious razor seems to dismiss them given the logic of this more compelling reason. 

Mitt Romney:
Conversely, Romney also has no reason to attack Ron Paul. He needs to focus on staying ahead of whoever the relevant not-Romney is: at the moment, Rick Santorum. As such, all energies are devoted to attacking Santorum as they previously were on Gingrich. Attacking the greatest threat makes sense. The best situation for Romney is one where the not-Romneys are all divided and don't coalesce around one candidate. It is thus in his best interests to ignore Ron Paul or even help Ron Paul to keep him relevant and stealing votes from the others. 

Rick Santorum:
As this month's not-Romney, all of Santorum's energies are focused on Romney. To win he needs momentum in Michigan and in Super Tuesday. That is, he has to beat out Romney. Especially with limited resources, defending his rear from Paul and Gingrich  makes little sense.

Newt Gingrich:
Gingrich is in probably the most interesting spot in terms of trying to devise a good strategy. There is no point in attacking Paul, but there is value in attacking both Romney and Santorum, the latter because he needs to beat out Santorum to get into the runner up status, and the former because at some point he actually was to win versus the front runner Romney. How best to distribute resources doesn't have the same kind of obvious game theory conclusion the other candidates have. 

Complicating the situation for Gingrich is that the financial side of his candidacy is almost entirely dependent on enormous contributions from Sheldon Adelson (who owns Israel's largest right leaning daily). He has apparently just pledged to donate even more. There has been some speculation that this would only occur on condition that Gingrich only use the money to attack Santorum (thereby effectively helping Romney). To what extent these conditions are true, and thus to what extent Gingrich focuses on Santorum or Romney, remains to be seen. 

Read more » "How the GOP candidates choose who to attack"
Feb 26, 2012

Impressions and Analysis from the Winnipeg NDP Leadership Debate

The following is my impressions of the candidates and discussion of various issues raised in the Winnipeg NDP Leadership Debate. Past debate coverage:  Ottawa | Toronto | Halifax 

Brian Topp:
I believe that Brian Topp won this debate. I don't say that lightly; in every other debate thus far I have ranked him several people down from the top. However, for the first time he came off as genuinely relaxed, jovial, and personal. He won most if not all of the minor exchanges with other candidates during Question & Answer period. He provided detailed policies, optimism for himself and the NDP, appropriate criticism of Harper and the other candidates without the pettiness we have seen before, and generally came off looking more like a Prime Minister than I have ever seen from him.

A progressive tax plan:
An interesting moment in the debate came when Martin Singh challenged Brian Topp on the fact that his plan on capital gains taxes does not address the issue of charitable giving. A fair question. However, it gave Topp the opportunity to deliver a robust and passionate defense of what he terms the "single most regressive tax change since WW2" - and got to mention his commitment to charitable giving (without offering specifics) to boot. Topp goes on to question Nash about whether this issue of tax fairness should be "central" to NDP policy. I think that given the context of the Occupy movement, given the context that this framing will be going on south of the border (Topp explicitly mentions Mitt Romney), and given that such issues poll well that framing his candidacy as a "tax fairness" issue is wise move.

Peggy Nash:
Conversely, I have often ranked Peggy Nash among the top in terms of debate performance (clearly winning the Toronto debate) but she faltered in this Winnipeg debate. Many of her statements were delivered quite flatly and were heavy on platitudes not policies. With a quiet audience, she couldn't make use of her excellent crowd leading rhetoric and inflections. Her best answer was on the question of first nations communities where she referred to the Indian Act as an outdated colonial leftover and talked about the specific proposal of midwives to assist in first nations communities.

She also struggled on several one-on-one questions. When asked by Topp twice whether she would divert revenue from Cap and Trade into general government revenues or only into green energy issues she refused to answer. Paul Dewar essentially accused her of being a flip flopper on the health care user fees controversy as well as her position on corporate tax rates and she didn't do much to answer these queries. She got a weird question from Singh who wasted a question by repeating his previous question on a detail of Brian Topp's tax plan (mentioned above) but asked it of her which was a non-question and got a non-answer back.

Topp's lack of a membership seat:
One notable exchange came when Nash challenged Topp (as she has done before) on what happens if he loses a bi-election in Quebec. Topp rather gracefully acknowledged this was a risk but that all the candidates had strengths and weakness. He went on to point out his strengths and accused Nash of having the weakness of never serving a day in government. Much like the Topp/Singh exchange (mentioned above), it was the ability by Topp to take legitimate criticism from his opponents and come out with an answer that makes him look very good and the other candidate bad that greatly contributed to his win in this debate.

Tom Mulcair:
Tom Mulcair did not have his best debate. He spoke in a humorless, measured voice that seemed to be devoid of passion and holding back a mild sense of anger. It just didn't have a personable, engaging nuance to it. I am somewhat surprised (even though he did the same last debate) that his far into the campaign he has not delivered enough stump speeches to be able to rattle off closing remarks without having to flatly read from prepared remarks. Unlike most of the other candidates who are almost universally proud of the NDP and its history, Mulcair was very negative of the NDP talking about its past problems with empty and outdated rhetoric.

A French problem?
Winning inside Quebec is important. But so is winning elsewhere in Canada (click here to read my analysis on geographic importance). While other candidates outside of Mulcair and maybe Topp may have problems in Quebec, I think that Mulcair has problems outside of Quebec. The sad part is, it is largely his own fault. Near the start of the Winnipeg debate on a question about the importance of winning the west he essentially said that Quebec was the most important region in the country, noting that the west only has 3 seats; this can't resonant with western voters. When the moderator pressed him, he rephrased saying that he wanted to do in the west what was done in Quebec. He repeatedly references Quebec and what was done in Quebec (far more than, say, Nash mentions Ontario), and brings up anecdotes of people he talked to in Quebec. He also answered a question in French for about half of his time; as an anglophone it is more than just annoying. All these things solidify his reputation as 'the Quebec candidate', and I think this puts real problems for him in the rest of the country.

Nathan Cullen:
As the debates have progressed, Nathan Cullen has focused more of his time (and his opponents focus more of their time in attacking Cullen) for his joint nominations proposal with the Liberals and Greens. I have always considered his candidacy to be a referendum on this issue.What surprised me in the past was how little he actually talked about it such that one might not even know he was running on this issue back in the Ottawa debate. As such, he often did well in the debates and scored many points on other issues. This time, however, almost every interaction with Cullen focused on this issue and he couldn't get anything else in sideways. His candidacy is now back firmly into the status of being a referendum on this issue. Check back in a few days for my overview on the joint nominations proposal.

Paul Dewar:
Paul Dewar had a good debate. He was, perhaps, second behind Topp. He spoke well with an appropriate mixture of touching on the usual NDP platitudes and values while also talking about policy specifics, even bill numbers. Perhaps this is just me and my biases, but I consistently have less written in my notes for Dewar than I do for the other candidates. I usually don't have things that are particularly positive or particularly negative to say. That he doesn't seem to be the one saying noteworthy things, however, may be itself a problem for him. 

How to build the party:
Dewar's strongest movement in the debate surrounded the issues of building the party. He spoke passionately about the need to hire local ground organizers, the worries of losing the per vote subsidy and replacing it with grassroots fundraising. He talked about running issues based funding campaigns, ala the conservatives. And he ensconces this within his "next 70 seats" plan which promises targeted strategies to win a majority. Mulcair tried to press him on this, framing it as abandoning other ridings, but Dewar defended this claim well. A lot of these things speak to some of my views, and I think it is entirely reasonable to embrace realpolitik when it comes to spending resources to win elections.
Read more » "Impressions and Analysis from the Winnipeg NDP Leadership Debate"
Feb 25, 2012

Rick Santorum's us vs them mentality

During the Arizona CNN Republican debate, Rick Santorum passionately defended two items: earmarks and his voting on No Child Left Behind. The way he defended them demonstrates his hyperpartisan nature.

Earmarks (which allow members in Congress to earmark specific projects for spending in larger bills opposed to letting the executive direct where the funds go) have long been a staple of both parties. Recently, in part because of a push by the Tea Party, they have become increasingly frowned upon by the right. This puts a Bush era Republican like Santorum, who used earmarks extensively, into something of a pickle that Romnney and Gingrich don't have to face on account of losing his senate election or being kicked out, respectively.

Santorum's defense of earmarks ultimately boils down to the idea that when it is the other team in office, it is okay to use earmarks because you need to take power from the executive and do things yourself. When you are in office, however, earmarks are terrible because they take power from you.
"Congress has a role to play when it comes to appropriating money, and sometimes the president and the administration doesn't get it right..Congress has a role of allocating resources when they think the administration has it wrong. I do believe there was abuse, and I said we should stop it, and as president I would oppose earmarks."
Santorum also voted for the poorly received No Child Left Behind Act, Bush's signature education reform which, like earmarks, is now a liability. In defense of this, he says that politics is a team sport and thus he supported it despite it going against his beliefs and that this was a mistake.
"I have to admit, I voted for that. It was against the principles I believed in, but, you know, when you're part of the team, sometimes you take one for the team, for the leader, and I made a mistake. You know, politics is a team sport, folks. And sometimes you've got to rally together and do something."
Both defenses paint the same picture: politics is a hyperpartisan game and positions are justified not based on any objective merit but whether they are on your own team and whether they help your own team. Conversely, when the other team proposes something it is prima facie bad.

This revelation is hardly new; indeed, any follower of politics knows how partisan it is. What is strange is to see such an impassioned defense of this, especially in a Presidential nomination debate. Polititians usually are partisan, but they don't try and overty defend their partisan nature. These revelations certainly cost Santorum in what is widely considered to be a debate that he lost. Ultimately, all he did was tell the truth.
Read more » "Rick Santorum's us vs them mentality"
Feb 22, 2012

Iran and the CNN Arizona GOP Presidential Debate

CNN Arizona GOP Debate
As it often has been in the past, Iran was the principle foreign policy topic discussed in what may well be the last GOP Presidential Debate that we have to suffer through. If it is possible, the hyperbolic, warmongering rhetoric reached a new low. Additional debate comments outside of the Iran issue are offered at the end of the post.

One of the problems in presenting Iran as a dire threat to the US is that America is, of course, an entire continent away from the US and protected by the world's most powerful military. It is thus necessary to construct a narrative of how exactly Iran could attack America. Mitt Romney provided that constructed path:
"Syria is providing the armament of Hezbollah in Lebanon...Ahmadinejad having fissile material that he can give to Hezbollah and Hamas and that they can bring into Latin America and potentially bring across the border into the United States to let off dirty bombs here."
Iran to Syria to Lebanon to Latin America to the US. This is, needless to say, entirely a fiction. There is no evidence or reason to suspect they are anywhere close to the capacities to do any component of this let alone have the will or desire to do it. One could say the same story about Pakistan or any other number of other countries (using other weapons than nukes, perhaps). But it provides that narrative that Iran might, just might, be able to attack you in the comfort of your home. It also is a narrative that works in the Israel issue and the illegal immigrant/border security issue all into a neat package.

Rick Santorum, who typically tries to be the strongest on the anti-Iranian side, delivered what can only be considered to be a perfectly written, prepared, and memorized sound bite:
"Ladies and gentlemen, we have a president who isn't going to stop them. He isn't going to stop them from getting a nuclear weapon. We need a new president or we are going to have a cataclysmic situation with a -- a power that is the most prolific proliferator of terror in the world that will be able to do so with impunity because they will have a nuclear weapon to protect -- protect them for whatever they do. It has to be stopped, and this president is not in a position to do that."
That sure sounds bad. Which is, of course, the point. In order to make Obama look bad on Iran for taking a (only relatively) constrained approach of sanctions, the GOP candidates need to make Iran not just be a troubling issue or a rogue country, but an apocalyptic end times that they - and only they - could be trusted to fight.

Newt Gingrich -- ever in need to appease Sheldon Adelson the billionaire financier of Gingrich's campaign and with a far right pro-Israel stance -- stooped to holocaust imagery and implying Ahmadinejad was a "madman".

Is Iran a rational actor?
Gingrich referenced Gen. Dempsey's, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, recent comments that Iran was a "rational actor". The fact that Ahmadinejad makes ridiculous assertions about 9/11, the holocaust and the like are purported to be evidence to the contrary. The immediate question to ask, in that case, is whether there are good rational reasons why Iran acts the way it does. I have argued that they do. In fact, just as the comments made by these GOP players seem irrational and unsubstantiated, they have reasonable political reasons for saying what they do. It may well be the tactically best path for them. The same is true for Iran and for the dominant players within Iran where it is entirely possible to make quite reasonable and logical justifications for why they say the ridiculous things they say. It is for this reason that Gen. Dempsey is absolutely correct.

Ron Paul was, as usual, the only voice of reason. Frankly, for all my dislike of Ron Paul, the level of support he gets still gives me hope despite statistics like that 71% of Americans believe Iran already has a nuclear weapon. He clearly stated that they did not have one. He talked about how we have dealt with far more powerful and belligerent aggressors with thousands of nuclear weapons successfully and how the sanctions regimes are harming, not helping, the regime.

Other issues in the debate:

  • Rick Santorum got eviscerated on the question of earmarks. Instead of passing it under the rug, he went on a prolonged and extensive justification of earmarks in his Bush years and was roundly attacked by all three other candidates (and booed by the audience). For much of the debate he came off relatively well, but this portion of it ought to make it be considered a "loss" for him at a time when he desperately needed a strong win. This earmark issue will be a big way in which Mitt Romney decides to attack Rick Santorum so he can't entirely hide from it, but this was poor way to deal with it. 
  • The crowd was most reactive to a moderator question on what the candidates thought of birth control which it extensively booed. All of the candidates responded really well to this question and it is sure to appeal strongly to their base. 
  • Despite just releasing his tax plan today (after how many years of campaigning?), Mitt Romney barely mentioned it and only in defense.  Odd, but then emphasizing actual policies is rare. 
  • Romney's tax plan, incidentally, is well positioned to take on Obama by cutting capital gains taxes only for those under 200k. As much as the other candidates might try to blast Romney for "class warfare", this polls incredibly well and gives the perception that Romney is out for the middle class and not just the 1% which is a critical perception for him to give to win independents. 
  • For all the past talk of Newt's alleged debate skills, I really don't see it. He is constantly dropped references to people and historical events and policy names that people simply don't get it. This is not an effective tactic. I think his 'rising above the fray to give the real issue' type comments do work, but opening the debate by making a reference to Hamilton? This is hardly effective. 
Read more » "Iran and the CNN Arizona GOP Presidential Debate"

The staggering ignorance of the public on Iran

A new CBS/Opinion Research poll indicates that 71% of Americans believe that Iran already has a nuclear weapon. Sigh. While it certainly should not be a surprise anymore given numerous past polling of a similar level of absurdity, it is still nonetheless disheartening. For the record, it is absolutely false that Iran has a nuclear weapon, as has been extensively confirmed by top US and Israeli military officials.

It is not immediately clear what the mechanism is that results in this poll. It isn't the case that there is a prominent group suggesting this falsehood (like was the case with Iraq having WMDs). Politicians on both sides of the debate, top government officials, and more or less the entire media class presents the Iran story in the same framing: that action must be taken to prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon. Ergo, it currently does not have one. There isn't debate about this publicly, there isn't controversy with some leaders pushing it, and it is almost entirely antithetical to the core narrative that is being described in the media.

Further, it isn't the case that the public just doesn't pay attention to news and the news media. They certainly do, with the average American spending upwards of seventy minutes daily consuming various forms of news. 68% of Americans follow national news "closely", 56% for international news. The Iran story is the singular biggest international story that gets discussed in the US, and has been for a long time. It is hard to follow purely domestic politics without it being a part of it as well given the overlap of domestic discussing it. For instance, it has been a repeated and core discussion in the GOP Presidential debates which have been widely watched. So people are watching news, and the news is clearly covering that Iran does not have nuclear weapons, and yet the 71% figure remains.

Can it be so simplistic as the fact that Americans hear the words 'Iran' and 'Nuclear Weapons' together in the same sentence so frequently they just form an equivalence between them?
Part of this issue is that there is an enormous build up towards war and aggression going on that is being pushed by large segments of the media and political classes. The demagoguery of Iran is extensive; Ahmadinejad and Ayatollah Khamenei are consistently portrayed as the ultimate evil. Canadian Foreign Affairs Minister uses holocaust rhetoric to describe them. So the idea that Iran is very bad and needs to be stopped is quite clear in the media - it is this very narrative which I attempt to dispel on this blog. Perhaps the explanation for the discrepancy is that many people have internalized the idea that Iran is bad and there is something to do with nuclear weapons, thus they assume without much consideration that the Iranians have nuclear weapons.

Years after the Iraq war started, it is now something of an acknowledged national embarrassment that the country was so easily duped into following the war drums being beat. Clearly there was no WMDs and, further, there never was legitimate reason to believe that there was. One might have hoped that Americans would have learned their mistake and now would be especially dubious about propped up claims of the threats allegedly posed by other countries. Apparently not.

One interesting aspect is that while the Obama does say belligerent things (leaving "all options on the table" is just a euphemism for saying "we may attack you militarily"), the Republican candidates are pushing far harder for war. Unlike the Iraq pre-war buildup where the US administration dominated the push for war and the media almost subserviently followed along, this time it is in large part the media leading the charge. The Obama administration has actually tried to walk back some its rhetoric, chastising Israel's belligerence publicly.

The entire point of the media is to inform the public. Ultimately, when the public is as poorly informed as it clearly is, a large chunk of responsibility must be shouldered by the media who is supposed to be informing them. If they cannot even convey effectively the most basic of facts about Iran, it is hard to imagine how a reasoned debate on the subject can even occur in the US.

I don't know if the US government will decide to engage in a military action against Iran. However, if they do decide to do this, it should be recognized how easy it will be to get the American public on board and on their side. In fact, they already are.
Read more » "The staggering ignorance of the public on Iran"
Feb 19, 2012

Rick Santorum signals the declining relevance of the Tea Party

Rick Santorum's recent rise to the number one contender spot versus perennial front-runner Mitt Romney has frequently been described as simply being the last in line of a long list of not-Romney flavor of the months. As in, there is nothing particularly special or meaningful in his recent and likely transient rise. However, this fits into a larger pattern; namely, the decline of the Tea Party as a relevant operating force within the Republican party and a turn to the long running, conventional establishment vs. evangelical schism within the Republican party. As an archetypal member of that latter category, Rick Santorum may thus have more staying power than his predecessors.

In 2010, the political story of the year was the Tea Party and its tremendous success at riding a high wave of Republican victories in the midterms. In congress, Tea Party members were revolting against the establishment Republican leaders, transforming the congressional, and indeed national, agenda and dialogue. With the GOP Presidential nominee still two years away, the smart money was that this contest would be fought between the establishment candidate (putatively, Mitt Romney) and an as yet undetermined Tea Party challenger. It would be a battle between the establishment and the Tea Party for no less than control of the GOP and the country.

That battle never materialized. It wasn't that the Tea Party hasn't dominated, they hardly appear to even be in the race. Of the seven people who have polled nationally at one point or other higher than Mitt Romney, Michele Bachmann is the only real Tea Party candidate. Indeed, her candidacy in this race represented the Tea Party and much of her motivation for this race undoutably was to solidify herself as the leader of the Tea Party - not Sarah Palin. She experienced an early bump when she managed to win the test measure of the Iowa straw poll, but her campaign subsequently fizzled without many pops or bangs until she eventually dropped out.

Who else could take the Tea Party flag? Hermain Cain was a dilettante - much loved for his value in contributing to the media news cycle, but with little reason to represent the Tea Party or anybody else (Koch brothers funding aside). Rick Perry never claimed the Tea Party mantle during his terms as a Texas Governor; indeed, in many ways he should be considered more establishment than Tea Party. Newt Gingrich, despite his temporary boosts of support, is the antithesis of the Tea Party: the prodigal Washington wall feature with decades in office and lobying along with a myriad of heterodox views that only coincidentally overlap with the Tea Party. Ron Paul - in some ways the grandfather of the Tea Party movement - has, despite some success in this campaign, never captured the mass appeal of those who self-identify as Tea Party members and has remained true to his ideological libertarian core while the Tea Party moved from its original roots.

Which leaves the current runner-up: Rick Santorum. Rick Santorm may enjoy support from Tea Party members. But he is hardly anything approaching the Tea Party. He is a Bush era establishment Republican who was in lock step with that administration (an administration the Tea Party ostensibly distances itself from). This is precisely how Mitt Romney is attacking him in ads. His central claim to fame - from the Bush years to the early days of the nomination, to today - has been is that he is the social conservative espousing all the right traditional Christian values. Rick Perry also tried to present himself in a similar way and may well have succeeded at taking this role (as innumerable commentators at the time predicted) were he not to have failed so memorably in the crucial debates.

We have seen this breed of Republican before. It is the old dichotomy between the Republicans that pitches an establishment that cares about the economy, tax policy, regulations, and most importantly its wealthy donors, against a much more populist social conservatism that cares about guns, gays, and God. On the one side are the financial elites capable of shelling out over a million bucks each to the candidate of their choice, and the reality of needing to appeal to the 40% of GOP caucus and primary voters who are evangelicals in some states.

In that narrative, Rick Santorum vs Mitt Romney makes perfect sense. Mitt Romney represents the establishment choice who has all the money and all the endorsements. Rick Santorum represents the Christian social conservatives who gets the backing of evangelical leaders. It is because he overlaps with this base so well - in ways that Newt Gingrich or Herman Cain never could - that he may have legitimate staying power. That is, unless the impeding firestorm of negative superPAC ads coming at him simply decimates his appeal.

That the Tea Party was unable to retain the staying power to be the dominant countervailing demographic within the GOP, and was unable to find and present a candidate of their own to back, represents nothing less than a decline in the relevance of the Tea Party. In 2010 they were the dominant countervailing force in American politics; today they hardly seem relevant to anywhere close to the same extent. The major narrative offered to explain the race thus far has been that the GOP has been clutching at a cabal of weak candidates desperately trying to find someone they can offer up instead of the despised Mitt Romney. Even this narrative - somewhat weak though I think it is - is intrinsically accepting that the Tea Party is not a particularly relevant player and that it is a reaction to Mitt Romney, not the Tea Party, that is driving this race.

One of the fundamental problems that the Tea Party has had is to figure out how they are different from conventional Republicans. In many ways, the Tea Party seems nothing but a sort of supped up and more extreme version of normal Republican politics. Republicans don't like gay marriage or abortion; the Tea Party really doesn't like gay marriage or abortion. Republicans don't like spending or taxes; the Tea Party can accept calls against essentially any and all spending or taxation. It isn't fundamentally new politics, it is just the old politics with a new framing and with a new enthusiasm. As such, we should not be particularly surprised that it doesn't form a core division within the party that has staying power the way the establishment vs evangelical schism does have legitimate policy and value differences that have lasting consequences for the party.

The extent to which the above is true is of critical importance to Rick Santorum. Should the Tea Party truly be the dominant countervailing force in the Republican party, it is hard to imagine how Rick Santorum could ever truly represent them and enthusiasm for him must be tepid. Should it be a traditional, populist social conservatism with a heavily religious twist that is the dominant countervailing force, I can see this demographic being very excited about Rick Santorum. If so, he just may have staying power in this race. Even if not, Rick Santorum truly is the last in line.
Read more » "Rick Santorum signals the declining relevance of the Tea Party"
Feb 15, 2012

NDP Leadership Candidate Policy Comparisons: Israel/Palestine

The Israel/Palestine issue is the foreign policy issue to which politians are most expect to have a cogent answer to. It is a necessary right of passage and, for many, a litmus test for political support. Unlike many other countries and regions to which my research has not indicated extensive coverage from the NDP leadership candidates, the Israel/Palestine issue provides a wealth of commentary from the candidates over the years. It is also one of those issues where there are significant differences between the candidates and so in a contest that often tends towards homogeneity, it provides a rare opportunity to test clear disagreements between the front-runners.

My rankings are relative compared to the rest of the NDP field, not relative to other parties or the veracity of the situation.

Candidate: Peggy Nash
Relative Position: Most pro-Palestinian of the candidates

Because of its status as a litmus test issue, many offer opinions on the Israel/Palestine issue but without a deep caring or understanding of the issue. Peggy Nash has actually done legitimate legwork on the issue. In 2006, Nash traveled to Lebanon following the 2006 Israel/Lebanon war as part of the National Council on Canadian-Arab Relations. Nahsh strongly criticized the devastation wrought by the attacks believing that "the IDF had gone too far" in attacking civilians and children and decrying Canada's noncommittal reaction: "Canada could have been a voice of peace calling for a ceasefire and a negotiated agreement". Nash has called for the removal of Hezbollah from the terrorist list and believes that Hamas should be at the negotiating table. Further, Nash believes that due to Canada's pro-Israel stance in recent years that we have lost our previous status as an honest broker in the region.
Choice Quote: "[It is] up to Israel, as the much larger power, to step back [from the conflict]"

Candidate: Thomas Mulcair
Relative Position: Most pro-Israel of the candidates

There can be no mistake that Thomas Mulcair is unquestionably a partisan in the pro-Israel camp and takes a set of positions that are in many ways very similar to Stephen Harper's on this issue. Mulcair is close to the dominant pro-Israel Jewish lobby in Canada, CJPAC. He has been instrumental, as NDP deputy leader, in softening NDP criticism regarding the 2009 Gaza War and the 2010 Gaza Aid Flotilla incident, as well as the softening of the general NDP platform between 2008 and 2011 which is now devoid of policy details on this issue. Mulcair opposes the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement. Perhaps most memorably, Mulcai got a lot of attention for what has been characterized as a viscous public attack against co-deputy leader Libby Davies for dubious comments she made regarding the Israel/Palestine conflict. Mulcair has stated that criticism of Israel or anti-Zionism cannot be seperated from anti-semitism.
Choice Quote: "I am an ardent supporter of Israel in all situations and in all circumstances.”

Candidate: Brian Topp
Relative Position: Moderate, leans pro-Israel

Brian Topp takes a relatively balanced approach to the conflict. He has referenced (interim Liberal Leader) Bob Rae's departure from the NDP for "reasonably justified", as Topp puts it, criticisms of the NDP party's "unbalanced" pro-Palestine approach. Topp support the Layton/Dewar transition back to a view that is very supportive of both Israeli and Palestinian rights. Ultimately, he supports a peaceful two state solution, as do most of them, with hard borders. Topp has identified Yitzhak Rabin, the Nobel Peace Prize winning fifth Prime Minister of Israel, as a "personal hero" and supports his view of a peaceful two-state solution as identified in the Oslo Accords. In a blog post on the subject, there was a slight twinge of pro-Israel bias as he noted the blood on the hands of some Palestinians and the possibility of irredentists on the Palestinian side without explicitly mentioning the converse. That said, Top views both the Wall and the settlement activities as impedments to peace, and support the Palestinian bid to UN membership. It is worth noting that Topp discusses this issue quite frequently; indeed, going back over a year it is the only foreign policy topic his rabble.ca blog talks about and he spent a third of his time on Power and Politics discussing this issue.
Choice Quote: "[We need to be] speaking directly and clearly to the rights of the Israeli people to legitimacy, to security, and to freedom from terror. And to the concurrent rights of the Palestinian people to those same rights.

Candidate: Paul Dewar
Relative Position: Moderate, leans pro-Palestinian

Since taking the shadow cabinet position of Foreign Affairs critic in 2011, Paul Dewar has become the most prominent NDP face on foreign affairs issues. Dewar takes a position that is more pro-Palestinian than the extremely pro-Israel Harper government, but more egalitarian than past NDP governments - a fact endorsed by Brian Topp. The major policy that Dewar has criticized thus far of the Harper regime has been Harper's rejecting of the Palestinian's UN statehood bid, an event he supports. Dewar believes we should reinvest in the  UNWRA. Dewar decried the settlement activity as a violation of the fourth Geneva Convention. I will note that while his post-Foreign Affairs critic comments mentioned above have been widely publicized, there was less material on him from before to determine my ranking than for the other candidates on this issue.
Choice Quote: "We all want to see a two-state solution, where Palestine and Israel exist side-by-side within viable, secure and agreed upon borders."

Candidate: Nathan Cullen
Relative Position: Moderate

Cullen criticized the "disgraceful" unilateral nature of Harper "picking sides" (i.e. Israel) during the Lebanon war, calling for a neutral perspective that supports both sides and an immediate ceasefire.  Cullen supports the two state solution. Little further material available, without comments on key questions like whether he supports the UN statehood bid.
Choice Quote: "Unequivocal support for either side in the Middle East is usually a bad idea because at the end of these conflicts, both sides usually have blood on their hands"

Niki Ashton and Martin Singh are going to be ignored both because of their very low chances in the race (as measured by endorsements, fundraising, and polling) and due to their limited commentary on this issue as seen from a cursory search.

A note on my rankings:
When I say a candidate is pro-Israel or pro-Palestine, I don't mean to imply they are that to the exclusion of the others. The candidates all broadly support a peaceful, just, two-state solution. That said, particularly for the more polarizing Nash and Mulcair, the lion's share of their comments are supporting the one side or the other and are using sets of arguments that are very commonly held positions for those who are partisans on the one side or the other. When I call the others moderate, it mean this in the context of the other candidates an not in an absolute sense that depends on the veracity of the situation on the ground or compared to other parties. In general, all the candidates with the exception of Mulcair are considerably stronger at standing up for Palestinian rights than Harper.

My personal views:
Readers of this blog will know that I fall somewhere between Peggy Nash's and Brian Topp's view of the conflict opposed to Thomas Mulcair's view. One can read an overview of my position here. Brian Topp is absolutely correct that legitimacy, freedom, and terror must be extended to both sides, that we must care about and advocate for both sides, and that the end goal must be a two-state solution. However there are very genuine asymmetries on the ground, such as the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 2006 and Gaza in 2009, that must be clearly identified and condemned, as Nash so strongly does. Being egalitarian in our values and hopes is not the same as being equally critical of the policies of the two sides and demanding policies from Canada that are exactly in the middle. I worry about false equivalences with the neutrality demanded by Nathan Cullen. I am very uncomfortable with the idea with Mulcair being the NDP leader, at least on this specific issue.

In a subsequent post, I will contrast the candidates' foreign policy positions on issues outside of Israel/Palestine. 
Read more » "NDP Leadership Candidate Policy Comparisons: Israel/Palestine"
Feb 14, 2012

The Harper government's us vs them mentality resurfaces in Internet privacy laws

“He can either stand with us or with the child pornographers"
So says Public Safety Minister Vic Toews defending the proposed Lawful Access legislation which would give sweeping new powers to the police regarding access to information on the Internet. It is, of course, a monstrous false dichotomy of the most pernicious kinds that pretends the only way one could oppose the act is to be directly supporting child pornography.

This rhetoric, not an uncommon sentiment from the Harper government, takes an example of the epitome of evil - child pornographers in this case - and contrasts their position with that. Surely one doesn't want to be on the side of the child pornographers, thus one must ardently defend the Harper government's position! Many a bad political position has been defended by 'think of the children!' type statements. Whatever one feels about the actual legislation, it should be clear that there is ample room for legitimate debate on the topic that can only be impeded by such insulting rhetoric.

The Bush model:
The Harper government is surely not the first to try this us vs. bad guys rhetoric. George W. Bush infamously used exactly this rhetoric in his address to a joint session of Congress shortly after 9/11 stating that "Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists". This Manichaean paranoia went on to underpin and justify all of the most egregious affronts to basic civil liberties and loss of life that the War on Terror has come to be known for. History has now shown that opposition to the Bush doctrine that began in a meaningful way following this speech is both the correct moral path and, clearly, in no way means one is with the terrorists. That Harper, who has long tried to dodge comparisons to American conservatives, would so overtly mimic one of the most iconic and misguided phrases of the last decade is startling.

Census hypocrisy:
There is a certain hypocrisy to all of this. Last year, the Conservatives decided to cancel the mandatory long form census through a controversial Order of Council, much to the chagrin of Statistics Canada, provincial governments, and many organizations. Key in the rhetorical arguments of the time made by people such as Industry Minister Tony Clement was that this was a violation of privacy. The move largely represented the Conservatives tossing a bit of red meat to their base. When it comes to the Lawful Access legislation, however, these concerns of privacy seem to have vanished. Warrant-less access to one's email address, IP, and the like don't seem to trigger the alarms from the Conservatives over their ostensible deep respect for privacy. Concerns for privacy are relevant precisely when they help the Conservatives politically.

Gaffes or deliberate?
One can sometimes make too much of a big deal over what are just gaffes, inconsequential slips in rhetoric that are neither representative of the polititians actual views or the views they wish to portray. I would submit that this is not the case here and Vic Toews didn't make an accidental mistake when he issued the "with us or with the child pornographers" line. Consider that the title of the bill is now renamed go be called the Protecting Children From Internet Predators Act. This name, clearly carefully chosen, presents the same false dichotomy only with internet predators swapped with child pornographers. The idea is that if someone is not supporting this bill, they must not care about and are even enabling the Internet predators and child pornographers.

Under the Harper government, there has been an extremely tight control of the media portrayal with a concentration of much of the entire government's public profile through the PMO to an extent that far exceeds past governments. It is hard to imagine in such a tight culture that so many high level cabinet ministers are just constantly making gaffes. This "with us or against us" mentality has come through, however, time and time again. Most noticeably is when Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver decried those who opposed the Northern Gateway pipeline as "radicals". It is the same sentiment all over again that there is no way any reasonable person could oppose anything the Conservatives do unless they are radicals who support child pornography and hate Israel.

This is also not the first time such rhetoric has come up. During the 2004 election campaign, Harper released a press release implying that Paul Martin must also be supporting child pornography. This issue, which he never backed down from, played a nontrivial role in the outcome of that election as people largely found this to be an unfair criticism. Rightly so. I have previously portrayed such statements as being 'cracks in the veneer' indicating a much more ideological nature to the tightly controlled Harper government than they would let on with their talk of pragmatism and moderation. More than just being slips that demonstrate a truer reality than the carefully presented face, I suspect they legitimately believe that such tactics are actually politically valuable tactics which is why Vic Toews believes he can say such things. My guess is that just from the perspective of political tactics they are wrong and that Canadians by and large do not like such portrayals. 

It is about trust:
One aspect of the criticism for bills like this one (and corresponding ones in other countries) are essentially issues of slippery slopes. People worry, quite legitimately, about the potential for abuse when things like databases of information of one's travels on the Internet are being recorded. In the Canadian bill much (but not all) of this information requires warrants which is good, but as we have seen the US, when the technology exists things like warrant-less wiretapping may always be around the corner. Even if it doesn't come to such extremes, it is very reasonable to worry that it will be used not just for child pornography, but a wide range of much more benign activities such as illegal downloading at the behest of media lobbies.

As such, the extent to which one might be tempted to support these types of bills depends to some extent on how much we can trust the government. In an effective democracy where the government is beholden to bottom up pressures and works to serve them, many of these provisions do not provide the same kind of threats. However, in a system which is beholden more to corporate interests or the military industrial complex, there is a much higher level potential for abuse. I will let the reader decide which our current system seems closer to. Regardless, statements like those made by Vic Toews do nothing to engender any sense of trust. 
Read more » "The Harper government's us vs them mentality resurfaces in Internet privacy laws"
Feb 13, 2012

Why you should register (by Feb 18th) to vote in the NDP Leadership Election

NDP Candidates at the Quebec debate
February 18th is the last date for which new NDP members are eligible to vote in the NDP Leadership elections that will occur on March 24th. If you are a un(der)employed or 26 years old or less, it only costs five bucks. Registering as an NDP member for this period allows you to participate in making an important and historic choice that will be at the core of setting the agenda, the issues, and the framing for the NDP party and Canadian politics for many years to come.

Regardless of your political views and loyalties, I implore you to register and vote. You can join here and see options for how to vote here.

One of the great things about being somewhere on the political left in Canada is that we get the choice of three different parties to vote from. Personally, I have voted Liberal, NDP, and Green in different elections for various reasons. I don't see myself as partisan, and I don't believe one has to be an NDP loyalist to vote in these elections. I intend to participate in the 2013 Liberal leadership elections next year as well.

To new and long term supporters of the NDP, take this opportunity to play an active opposed to passive role in building the party and setting the agenda of issues and values that it represents. To voters who lean more in the Liberal or Green camps, note that politics is not done in a vacuum and having an NDP candidate that most represents your own views works in concert with other parties doing likewise, not in conflict with them. Multi-partisan support for issues is always the best way forward and a healthy debate of the best candidates from all parties is the optimal outcome. To those who may feel politically apathetic or unrepresented, this is an opportunity to input your voice and your perspectives into the political conversation in way that has a much higher influence per vote than the general election.

We have seen in Canada how a good leader like Jack Layton can provide a tremendous boost to a party and how a poor one, like Stéphane Dion, can significantly hamper a party. More than just choosing a leader, it is about choosing the values and issues that we most care about. It is about influencing the balance of priorities of issues, about setting the agenda and the framing. Even if our preferred candidate does not win, by showing support for the issues they represent, it buoys the prevalence of those issues in the future by the party which sees the appeal those issues presented. There remains considerable value in voting for third party candidates.

The importance of nomination contests:

In many ways, the choices we make in nomination contests like this one are more important than those we make in a general election. For many of us who, frankly, would not consider the Conservatives to be a viable option in almost any circumstance, our choice of the relevant non-Conservative option in our riding is more of a ratification of that candidate than it is a chance to shape and mold the party and the country.

All of the hard work in democracy comes long before the general election campaigns. It is about setting the political agenda, framing the issues, and choosing candidates who represent our beliefs and values. We can, and should, be engaged in this process at every step along the way. Coming in at the last moment to vote - particularly for the lesser of two evils, as so many do - is an almost empty decision that deprives us of the chance for a larger influence in our democracy.

In a top down system, we choose between the choices provided to us by others; all too often these choices are unsatisfactory and leave us feeling disgusted and apathetic about politics. We have it relatively good in Canada, in many countries the choices presented to ratify are nothing but the pawns of a corrupt and authoritarian establishment. In a genuine bottom up democratic system, it is the people who decide the issues and the people who present their candidate when that candidate has proven their worth at fighting for the values and issues of the people.

The Tea Party model:
The tremendous electoral success of the Tea Party in the United States should provide motivation, even if we recoil at some of their politics. They managed, in the 2010 midterm elections, to get numerous of their candidates elected in nomination contests unseating establishment Republicans. The Tea Party was a success not because its members ratified whoever was the GOP candidates, but because they organized and set the agenda and got their own candidates elected in district after district who where then ratified by the rest of the Republicans to give them their electoral successes. We can do the same with progressive candidates, on both sides of the border.

Get informed:
Part of the inhibitions some might feel to becoming an NDP member and voting in this election is that they don't know very much about the candidates. To make the best choice possible, we have a civic duty not just to register and vote, but to make an informed choice that rests on our own values and chooses a candidate who best represents them. It does not take very long to get a cursory understanding of the candidates and how they differ. This blog has covered the Ottawa debate, the Toronto debate, and the Halifax debate, which should give a rough overview. In the next month, check back for more coverage of the policies and politics of this election and, hopefully, a comprehensive endorsement of one of the candidates.
Read more » "Why you should register (by Feb 18th) to vote in the NDP Leadership Election"
Feb 12, 2012

A domestic foreign policy: Iran, Israel, and the US

Foreign policy is ostensibly something to do with other countries. However, when politicians talk about it they are largely doing so for their own domestic interests. Discussions of foreign policy are constantly evolving in the ideas, rhetoric, policies and details; the discussion of Iran today is very different than it was in 2008, for instance. The question is, what is the principle driver of these changes, is it foreign developments as we might initially assume, or is it more domestic considerations?

It is my view that while foreign policy discussion can't stray entirely away from the realities on the ground, and specific details that are mentioned fluctuate with respect to evolving foreign developments, the overwhelming determiner of foreign policy discussion is actually domestic interests not foreign. Politicians talk about foreign policy because they hope to gain popular support for themselves and their views, to set the agenda, to dismiss criticism, and the like. The things they say are principally tailored based on how they think their own domestic population will react. The best measure of how important the domestic side of things is to see the disconnect between how the domestic political discussion unfolds compared to the substantive changes in developments on the ground. As we will see as we consider various countries, the pattern of this primacy of domestic interests driving foreign policy discussion repeats itself.

Why we talk about Iran:
Consider, for example, the situation with Iran which dominates much of the political foreign policy rhetoric. Despite the risks of regional conflict and loss of life being vastly greater in Syria, despite an escalating amount of interventionalism in Somalia, despite an ongoing massive war in Afghanistan, Iran still gets the most attention and is portrayed (just as Iraq was before it) as the epitome of evil posing a grave and dangerous threat. The reality, of course, is that Iran's military capacities are very limited and even in the case that it acquires a nuclear bomb this is understood by all players to be a tactical deterrent that would never get used offensively. It is for this reason why Arabs - the neighbors of Iran despite being overwhelmingly of a different religion - in general support the idea of a nuclear Iran. Yet this realpolitik, which anyone actually involved in the foreign policy relations would acknowledge, is entirely lost on the political discussion in the US.

The potential political gains for candidates in the GOP Presidential nomination contest are significant. Obama's strongest aspect, from a public opinion perspective, has been his putative foreign policy successes (Osama Bin Laden, withdrawing from Iraq, Libya, etc - these can be contested but are generally well received). The Republicans, in contrast, have typically tried to be the standard bearers for having the right foreign policy view. For the Republicans, Iran represents an opportunity to attack Obama on foreign policy. They can present that image of a tough, proud, strong policy of American exceptionalism. They can play the fear tactics card that have been so politically successful in the past.

Conversely, Obama needs to set a beachhead against these attacks. He can also use the acting tough rhetoric to achieve political support just as the Republicans do; they do not have a monopoly on this. What is interesting is that aside from rhetorical differences there is not really substantive policy differences between Obama and candidates like Mitt Romney. Both keep the option of military strikes; both promote the toughest of diplomatic responses; and while the GOP candidates tried to outdo each other on using covert attacks to incite regime change and assassinate scientists, some combination of the US and Israel is engaged in exactly these activities on the ground. That said, since the hawkish calls for war are so strong on the Republican side, they will have the perception of a stronger mandate for war and so the threshold of situations in which the US goes to war with Iran are moderately lower for the Republicans than for Obama.

The point in all of this is that domestic discussion of Iran has little to do with an objective measure of the threat that Iran does or does not pose. Substantive changes in the foreign policy relationship do not have much of an effect on the changing realities on the ground. For example, one of the largest foreign policy failures of the Obama administration on the Iran file was to flatly reject the nuclear deal sponsored by Turkey and Brazil that broadly covered the ostensible goals of the time regarding dealing with nuclear fuel. This was done simply because it was brokered by rising middle powers and not by the US itself. Since then the diplomatic situation with Iran has weakened - not as far as the rhetoric would suggest, but weakened nonetheless. The Republicans could rightly attack Obama for this foreign policy mistake, yet they don't because they prefer the tough hawkish perception opposed to the soft tactics of multilateral diplomacy.

Why Iran talks about us:
Just as US politicians have their own domestic reasons for saying the different things that they do, so is the case for Iranian leaders. With parliamentary elections approaching next month, the division in Iran is very strong. The tension between President Ahmadinejad and Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei are openly spewed across the Iranian stage. When leaders of Iran say things like "death to Israel" or any of the other ridiculous nonsense they say, it is again to appeal to domestic considerations. They want to be presented as strong and powerful in the face of the infidel imperial powers. Nuclear weapons are seen as a symbol of Iranian power and prestige and it really appeals to people to have that power just as the world's strongest powers do. Anti-Israeli sentiment is strong - although not as strong as the leaders present - but nonetheless they can appeal to that for domestic support. That much of any of this translates into realistic chances of attack is not at all clear. For the most part, they do what they do for domestic political reasons just as our politicians do with little consideration for any diplomatic changes.

Israel forms the third vertex of the Israel-US-Iran triangle of relations that each has found one of the other to be the chief country to demonize at every opportunity. For the US, there is a strong sentiment that has been inculcated (quite artificially, as the history of this relationship shows) that being Israel's best friend as a foreign policy imperative and that anything that could be even the slightest bit perceived to be against Israel is a domestic relations nightmare. The right has a strong Christian Zionist movement and GOP candidates hope to appeal to both this as well as some Jews (although most voted for Obama in 2008). Since the Israel-Iran relationship is so poor and both demonize the other, if one can show that Obama is in some way 'bad' on Iran, it can be cast as being against Israel.

In Israel, however, they face their own domestic concerns. Benjamin Netanyahu's Likud party is in power formed as a coalition between extremely right wing members and relatively more moderate ones. He faces significant challenges for the next election in 2 years and faces a near constant threat of revolt from the right wing of his coalition which is the political reason he more or less has to keep up with the settlement activity in the West Bank. Strong anti-Iranian rhetoric, and anti-Iranian policies such as launching the Stuxnet cyber attack and assassinating Iranian scientists, provide easy fodder for him to acquire political support. Indeed, the clash of religions narrative is very strong in Israel and being able to appeal to it by having both countries consistently demonizing the other is a very powerful political narrative.

Foreign policy as it actually operates:
One can continue telling story after story like the ones above moving from country to country around the world and it repeats itself over and over again: discussion of foreign policy in a country are predominantly for politicians' own domestic interests. These discussions often have little bearing on substantive changes in the underlying foreign events. However, it is worth stepping back and considering the kinds of interactions that actually make up foreign policy to see how it contrast with the rhetoric.

Foreign policy consists of a long series of different soft and hard interactions that range from diplomacy, incentives, and sanctions, all the way to covert and overt military actions. That is, it is the actual interactions between representatives of the various countries that comprise foreign policy. On the soft (as in non-military) side of things, one of the chief goals is the issue of signalling by which one country makes apparent to the other country its desires and what carrots and sticks accompany these desires to try and coax the other country to behave accordingly. There are numerous such signalling mechanisms that range from low level discussions by diplomatic representatives to UN resolutions.

What is more or less absent from such signalling, is considerations for what leaders of one country say to their own people. Mainly, this is because it is a simple terrible signally mechanism since everyone involves knows that the chief reason the leaders say what they do is for their own domestic interests. So when Barack Obama includes a tough-on-Iran component to his State of the Union address, he is not attempting to convey a message to Iran about the American stance on issues - they know what it is from the other signaling channels - he is instead conveying a message to the American people. Conversely, the same is true for statements that Ahmadinejad makes. The result is that a country's foreign policy - as measured by what its diplomats say and do - can and often is substantially different than its domestic public discussion.

In many ways, foreign policy is one of the more technocratic disciplines. As in, it is a subject where the substantial changes occur outside of the public eye and are done by specialists in these respective issues. Contrast this with an issue like taxation which is at the forefront of American politics and faces enormous amounts of public scrutiny. I have developed a very large appreciation for the difficulty and complexity of diplomacy and think it is far from the trivial caricatures presented by both the right and the left.

Consider the most drastic and consequential example of foreign policy: wars. Elections are not won or lost based on the decision to start a war. Very often they will be won or lost on the details of continuing a war (Bush 2004) or ending one (Obama 2008), but not on starting one. Whether it is Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Balkans, Gulf War, and so on, these are all actions taken by sitting governments without an electoral mandate. The decision to engage in war is, for the most part, done outside of the public consciousness. The war is then presented to the public, as it was in Iraq, and defended by those who decided to engage in it. It is selling a decision, not making one.

My broad point may seem intuitively obvious, perhaps even pedantic. We may be quite familiar with the idea that our own countries discussion of foreign policy is for the most part political pandering. However, I think it is less well appreciated (even though we should naively expect it to be the same) that other countries political discussion is also done for the sake of their own domestic pandering. And I think it is worthwhile to notice the considerable extent of the difference between domestic foreign policy discussion and the realities on the ground. Further, we often have the idea the dominant relationship in foreign policy is one where one country acts and another reacts, and so on. We should replace that perspective with one where both countries are not acting or reacting based on the other countries but instead simply using the changing events to further their own consistent domestic interests.
Read more » "A domestic foreign policy: Iran, Israel, and the US"
Feb 8, 2012

Obamacare, birth control, and religious freedoms

The Obama administration has recently adopted a very narrow definition of religious exclusions in the Affordable Care Act, otherwise known as Obamacare. The effect of this is that ostensibly religious institutions such as Catholic hospitals and universities would be required, along with everyone else, to include coverage of birth control in their health insurance plans, even if they cite religious reasons why they would not want to. This move has several interesting legal, moral, and political implications.

A freer option:
When Barack Obama signed into law his signature health care reform bill, the United States retained one of the least government-based health care systems in the first world. Far from universal health care, there was not even a public option which would have provided optional government based medical insurance in competition with private insurance. Instead, it required individuals to purchase private insurance and then subsidizes that cost for lower income Americans.

The so called 'individual mandate', the part which requires people to purchase insurance, has since then been consistently attacked from many angles as an assault on individual freedom. It is being challenged at the court level (currently destined for a Supreme Court decision this summer) and has been a magnet for attacks from GOP presidential nominee candidates. This latest issue of denying religious exemptions to the birth control clauses in the individual mandate is being cast as one of overstepping religious freedoms.

It is thus worth recalling that the individual mandate is the less obtrusive, smaller government, more freedom based option. Most don't have a fundamental problem with the idea of government providing a service and taxing the population to pay for it. Having people spend money (in essence, a tax) on their choice of private insurance is just objectively less government interventionism; this is the exact reason why the individual mandate was originally crafted as the Republican alternative in the nineties and implemented by Mitt Romney in Massachusetts.

The only reason this feels somehow more intrusive is that it is outside of the normal tax and spend paradigm that we have become comfortable with. By giving us the choice it feels intuitively like a restriction of freedoms when those choices are limited (such as having all plans include birth control coverage) even if freedom would be even more limited if there was universal health care like there are in Canada and many other countries. The government could theoretically even provide just birth control for free (as China does) and this would hardly violate the religious freedoms of anyone.

Every one of us can find things we don't like about government decisions. There are things we wish our tax dollars were not spent on, or things we wish they were spent on. For the religious among us, the government may spend money and create rules that violate our religious inclinations. That is the nature of our social contract. What I take objection to is the idea that the healthcare bill is somehow a special and more extreme version of this that imposes a higher restrictions on freedom - and religious freedom in particular - than other aspects of government and, indeed, it is less invasive than the alternatives which could be modeled on widely supported programs like Medicare or Medicaid.

At the states level, this issue has already been decided. Some 28 states already mandate the inclusion of birth control in insurance plans, religious institutions or otherwise. Recent court cases in 2007 in New York and 2004 in California reaffirmed the right of the state to intervene in this way against Catholic institutions. The question is thus jurisdictional about the right of the federal government to so intervene. However, that question of the individual mandate at the federal level is already being taken up by the Supreme Court and the smart money bet in my view is that it will be allowed. There is nothing about the religious nature of it that makes this special, it is the same jurisdictional issue as the rest of the mandate and comes down to how widely one interprets the commerce clause in the constitution.

Religious freedoms has been consistently viewed as the individual freedom to practice and believe as one wishes. A decision that forced Catholics to use birth control, as silly as this example sounds, would not be allowed because that violates their religious freedoms to live their own life as they choose. However, that freedom usually plays second fiddle legally speaking when it comes to social interactions where another persons freedoms or well being is in question. That is, individual freedoms do not extent to being able to do whatever one wants to other people when in positions of power.

The classic example is gay rights (although black rights before it works just as well). If one disapproves of homosexuality - as many religious people do - they are still obliged not to discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation. Of course, in many states people can still be fired for the singular reason of being gay and this must change, but the point is that religious freedom can, and should, be curtailed when it comes to restricting the well being and freedom of others in a social interaction.

Catholic churches and universities are the epitome of a social institution. Many who attend these institutions are not Catholic and they are part of the larger fabric of society and as such can, and should, be regulated by the governments of society. Nobody should be able to force an individual to do anything personally, of course, but if something increases the health and well being of society (availability of birth control certainly being among these facets) then it is right to ensure that such policies are put in place. Just as it is right to ensure that religious based organizations like these don't discriminate based on sexual orientation even if this violates their personal beliefs.

This is bad politics:
Whatever one thinks about the legality or morality of the decision, I actually think it is very bad politics. If our lens is to get Obama reelected, it hurts him significantly. I fully support coverage of birth control but I think Obama should not have done this. The backlash against this has already been very strong. Some 80% of Catholic Bishops have written letters against this (liberals and moderates among them) which have been read to countless congregations comprising the nation's 70 million Catholics.

The main problem from a framing perspective is that it fits so nicely into the GOP image that Obama is waging some form of otherwise nonexistent war on religion, as ex-candidate Rick Perry put it. The Democrats have an enormous problem with religion and not making it seem that the default party of piety is the Republicans. A startling 20% of people at various times have thought Obama was a Muslim despite his numerous attempts that exceed that of previous presidents to express his Christian piety. The GOP is already using this issue extensively and Obama's campaign manager, David Axelrod, has hinted at a possible retraction.

That said, a new poll indicates 58% of Catholics approve of this policy, so perhaps it will not be a huge issue. I suspect, however, that their will be a silent minority who doesn't mind it and a very vocal minority who grabs the lions share of attention in casting this as an Obama attack on religious freedoms.

While it may seem that most are not going to personally object to this - 98% of Catholic women use birth control at some point in their lifetime and most Protestant sects have no qualms with birth control - I think there is a very significant sense among many religious people that freedom of religion, as they see it, should be maintained. It will be seen as an attack on religion, and many will oppose it for that reason even if they personally have no qualms with birth control. It is a bit ironic since my major theme of the Obama presidency has been that he should take strong, principled stands, and not capitulate to the right due to inflated worries over messaging. This time, however, with the elections coming and a relatively minor issue, I think it was the wrong time and the wrong way, politically, to go about it.

Widening the abortion culture war:
Part of what is so painful about the culture war over abortion is just how entrenched the battle is so that pragmatism simply does not factor in. Any advantage, any edge, that can be seen to fight abortion will occur even if it means sacrificing even a modicum of common sense as we have seen in several proposed state bills on abortion. It is asymmetric, but this is probably true of both sides. This birth control battle is not just about birth control, it is also about 'abortifacients' such as the Morning After pill which is deemed to be part of the abortion battleground and so will be vigorously opposed simply because of this.

However, the battle has thus far largely been constrained just to abortion. There is a very big risk, in my mind, that the right will try and reposition the battle to start including birth control in general. The image of the perfect Christian family with sex only during marriage and only for the purpose of children is, of course, a utopia with little resemblance to the overwhelming majority. However, many of the staunchest prolife advocates want to demonize birth control as also bad. Granted, this policy was pushed by Democrats on Catholics, and others, so perhaps it is unfair to say that it is the right doing the repositioning. However, I don't think this is close to the last time we hear about birth control.
Read more » "Obamacare, birth control, and religious freedoms"
Feb 6, 2012

John Baird's response to the Israel/Iran conflict

Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird
Right now, we have one sovereign United Nations member making explicit overtures about launching a unilateral military attack on another sovereign United Nations member. It isn't just rhetoric, there is a nontrivial possibility that this might actually occur and they have both the motive and the means to pull off this attack - the latter provided by far the most powerful military power the world has ever seen. I am talking, of course, about the possibility of Israel attacking Iran, but I think it is sometimes better stated without the explicit reference to remind us of how extreme this is and how we would reject to the situation were it in any other context. The consequences of the attack, beyond the immediate loss of life, may entail having the entire region spiraling out of control into a protracted war in Lebanon, Gaza, Syria and beyond that could necessitate wider scale international intervention.

To me, the appropriate reaction to such a threat would be widespread condemnation of unilateral military action. Major allies of the Israel - of which Canada is one of its staunchest - ought to take the role of persuading Israel not to take such an dangerous and misguided action. While threatening disincentives are the optimal route, even taking a rhetorical condemnation is acceptable. This is what Obama has done in a recent interview saying that they are expressing their "concerns" - which is laudable - while not mentioning a single disincentive they may levy on Israel such as reducing the US's staggering military and diplomatic aid to Israel - which is not.

Canada's reaction, however, has not even reached the US's level. Instead of opposing the idea of a unilateral Israeli strike against Iran, Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird has nothing but supportive rhetoric for Israel. He went to the further extreme of making holocaust comparisons in the context of a discussion about Iran:
"Obviously you can understand why the Jewish people and why Israel would take [Ayatollah Ali Khamenei] seriously. Hitler wrote Mein Kampf more than a decade before he became Chancellor of Germany. And they take these issues pretty seriously here."
Oh Godwin. One can have harsh things to say about the Iranian regime. But it no sense should they be compared to Nazi Germany. They are wildly different in everything from worldview, ideology, religion and - importantly - military capacity. Not to mention the realpolitik that nothing approaching in any way the Holocaust could possibly occur. We should be encouraging reasonable dialogue and engagement with all parties, not engaging in Holocaust rhetoric. One can say things strongly, but empty and only incendiary comments have no value and frankly it is both insulting and embarrassing, as a Canadian, to have my representatives saying such things. For a long time, charges of anti-semitism have been leveled against those that speak out against the rhetoric and policies of the government of Israel, a conflation that is intolerable. This rhetoric is itself damaging to Israel and encourages violence and aggression against them, and a true friend of Israel would attempt to dissuade them from such rhetoric, not enabling them.

One response people give to warmongering comments by the West is to note that Iran also says such things; indeed, they say things objectively more ridiculous such as Holocaust or 9/11 denial. However, such comments should be condemned, not mimicked. Escalating rhetoric greases the path to escalating conflict and war. We have a moral responsibility to take the high road and not descend to the hyper partisan chutzpah that feels the need to engage in Holocaust rhetoric. Baird went on to say that Iran poses a "significant security threat to Canada and the West". This is just blatant hawkish rhetoric; it is patently clear that Iran poses essentially zero threat to a country on a different continent like Canada which shares a border with the world's largest military power.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, who recently agreed to head a unity Fatah-Hamas government, put a useful charge to Baird when the Canadian delegation visited Palestine last week to unilaterally criticize Palestine. It is clear that Canada is one of Israel's staunchest friends and so he didn't implore them to help Palestinians directly. He asked Canada to help their friend achieve peace and to use Canada's close ties to Israel to help persuade them to abandon the settlement activity that is indubitably impeding the peace process. I certainly agree. It seems, however, that this advice fell on deaf ears.

Public Opinion:
Baird also claimed that the majority of people in the Middle East are very worried by Iran. I would postulate it is exactly the opposite: they are worried about an attack by Israel on Iran not the other way around. Indeed, 70% of Arabs in the Middle East who think Iran is seeking a nuclear weapon believe they have a right to one; 92% do among those who believe Iran's intentions are peaceful. 57% of people think it would be a positive for them to get a nuclear weapon, not just a right. 88% and 77% of people in the Middle East believe that Israel and the US, respectively, pose the biggest threat to them. I think it is safe to say that both of these outlandish statements by Baird are just patently false.

Canadian public opinion is also interesting. For the most part, Canadians believe that their government is "striking the right balance" on the Israel/Palestine issue; so says 48%. However, if one delves a bit deeper into the policies this is not born out. For instance, only 11% of Canadians oppose the Palestinian bid for statehood recognition at the UN. Yet Harper and his team are vigorously opposing precisely this. Indeed, Canada is one of the staunchest supports of Israel both in policy and rhetoric of any other country in the UN even surpassing the United States. Part of the problem is that the public is not well informed. Only 35% actually support the Palestinian bid, and while that is more than three times as much as those that oppose it, the majority (53%) simply don't have an opinion on the subject. This is why I think discussion of Israel and Canada's relationship - and in particular the hyper partisan nature of it from the current administration - are crucial.

Cracks in the Harper veneer:
The Harper government has long tried to present itself as pragmatic moderates opposed to attempts by the left to portray it as far right ideologues. He has deliberately suppressed gay marriage and abortion, suppressed discussing his religiosity, avoided hawkish statements, and repeats ad nauseum his focus in a well managed economy. For the most part, Harper has been successful at turning the public eye to this this image. However, this image is at least to some extent a facade with Harper himself - and many of those that he surrounds himself with - being far more partisan ideologues than he lets on.

This becomes apparent when the rhetoric slips along the fringes. Whether it is Foreign Affairs Minister Baird comparing Iran to Nazi Germany, whether it is Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver calling Northern Gateway opponents "radicals" or whether it is Immigration Minister Jason Kenney unilaterally banning the Niqab in citizenship ceremonies, these slips keep coming. And they are slips that show the Harper government to be far more partisan than they would like us to think of them as.

There is still hope:
I have great hope for Iran. I have hope for the Green movement in Iran, for the secular youth. We have seen in the Arab spring how decades old authoritarian dictators that were once thought untoppleable - many backed by the West - were indeed toppled. I believe that with engagement and diplomacy that takes a wider perspective than just the nuclear lens, Iran can achieve genuine liberalization that benefits them and us. But inflammatory rhetoric accomplishes nothing; we can be, and must be, far above that. We have to be honest brokers - following in that proud Canadian tradition - and not, as Baird ironically puts it, operate "under the false pretense of being an honest broker".
Read more » "John Baird's response to the Israel/Iran conflict"
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