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What Canada can do about Libya

Canada’s role used to be to stall for time and then say ‘me too’


 
What Canada can do about Libya

Max Rossi/Reuters

The West supplements a shaky knowledge of the Middle East’s history with a determination to forget its own. There’s a reason why Moammar Gadhafi turns up next to so many Western leaders—Tony Blair, Jacques Chirac, Paul Martin, Nicolas Sarkozy, Portugal’s José Socrates—in photographs from a few years ago. The insane Libyan was the poster boy for a certain model of international relations. Now is a good time to understand that model, why it is dying, and what countries like Canada can do next.

In October 2001, a month after the terrorist attacks on Washington and Lower Manhattan, Pentagon adviser Richard Perle sat down with Linda Frum for an interview that was published in the National Post. “After we have destroyed the Taliban,” he said, “the message to the Syrians, the Iraqis, the Iranians, the Yemenis, the Sudanese and others should simply be, ‘You’re next.’ It may be necessary to destroy two of these regimes before the others understand that we’re serious.”

This was the dominant model for Western relations with the Middle East and North Africa after 9/11. The United States, in concert with willing allies, would go around the region shooting until dictators started to get in line. I don’t want to make too much fun of the notion. There was urgent peril. Soon London and Madrid were attacked too. There didn’t seem to be a lot of alternatives. But once the Americans had destroyed two nasty regimes, in Afghanistan and Iraq, it became urgent to start collecting trophies, however tarnished.

Enter Gadhafi. In 2003, he announced he was abandoning his weapons of mass destruction and long-range missile programs. Hallelujah. Condoleezza Rice called Libya “an important model.” Tony Blair and the gang started lining up for photo ops.

There were limits to how much lipstick they could put on this pig. Life in Libya was still hell for its people. But the shoot-and-take-names strategy was about cementing regional stability, not promoting human dignity. “In citing Gadhafi as a model, Rice has signalled the administration’s priority for security over the cause of freedom,” Time magazine pointed out. But again, to the democratic leaders lining up to shake Gadhafi’s hand, there must have seemed no alternative.

Then, two months ago, on Dec. 17, a fed-up Tunisian street vendor named Mohammed Bouazizi set himself on fire. A new model for change in North Africa, quite undreamt-of by the alumni club of the Pentagon Defense Policy Board, was born. The Tunisian regime was its first victim. Hosni Mubarak in Egypt was its next. More thugs will follow them into oblivion.

What’s important to realize is that the old model—a string of sullen and hopeless but relatively quiet dictatorships—is already gone forever. Nobody can bring that cold peace back. What comes next could look a lot like Somalia: chaos, sectarian violence, terrorism bred in anarchy. Or it could look better.

Isn’t it obvious that the West has a vital security interest in making sure the future looks better and not worse?

The crucial transition is still Egypt’s. Its population is 13 times Libya’s, 2½ times Canada’s. If it doesn’t lead the Arab world toward democracy it will lead it the other way. Its transition is shaky. The military council has announced a constitutional referendum and free elections. But relics of the Mubarak years remain in cabinet. An advisory panel will recommend only amendments to Mubarak’s constitution, not an all-new document. The army still controls much of the economy. Reform requires an informed and patient population, but poverty will make reform painful and illiteracy will make it hard to explain.

To say Egyptians will decide their future does not mean Canadians and others should hold our tongues. Canadians helped draft South Africa’s post-apartheid constitution. Western NGOs and academics like Jeffrey Sachs were crucial in cementing Eastern Europe’s transition to democracy and free markets. Democrats never mind offers of help from democrats.

The Canadian Bar Association, or law deans of prominent Canadian universities, should analyze and publicly comment on the quality of the proposed Egyptian constitutional amendments. The Harper government should offer to loan experts from the public service now, and coordinate such offers with the G20 soon. Military assistance, mostly Washington’s, must depend on continued reform and peace with Israel and other neighbours. Civilian development assistance should flow under the same conditions. If it helps, the money spent will be a bargain.

Stephen Harper has made none of these moves. He bases his Middle Eastern policy on stale one-dimensional guesses about what might be good for Israel. Fair enough: a string of failed democratic transitions across North Africa would be really bad for Israel. Not long after, it would be really bad for Canada. It is easy to spot the big historical moments in hindsight. Harder to spot and seize them while they’re happening. Canada’s role has often been to stall for time and then say, “Me too.” Harper used to mock Liberals for acting that way. Today he is outdoing them.


 

What Canada can do about Libya

  1. An advisory panel will recommend only amendments to Mubarak's constitution, not an all-new document.

    Not having read the existing constitution, I do nonetheless remember reading a couple weeks ago that the existing document wasn't all that bad to begin with, there was just the issue of Mubarak reading the thing, understanding it and abiding by it. Have I been misinformed by such reports? Didn't the constitution exist before Mubarak came along to trash the joint? If so, in what way is it Mubarak's constitution?

    As to Canada loaning constitutional experts, I like it. Don't even hide Meech Lake and Charlottetown from our instructive narrative; they are magnificent examples of how "political turmoil" can exist without people actually killing each other.

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  2. Here's the constitution. A bit flowery, and it specifies a socialist economy — I'd prefer one that says nothing about how the economy should be organized — but it's a handy reminder that what matters most is not the language of a constitution but the political culture surrounding it. Which is why process is not trivial now.
    http://www.uam.es/otroscentros/medina/egypt/egypo

    • "Which is why process is not trivial now." I think this statement is very applicable to our democracy here in Canada as well, but the process is what has taken a beating these past five years.

  3. PW, what is your response to these press releases?

    Rights & Democracy's President Takes Position on the Situation in Libya: Condemns Actions Taken by Kadhafi Against Civilian Demonstrators http://www.dd-rd.ca/site/media/index.php?id=3131&…

    Rights & Democracy Statement on the Middle East http://www.dd-rd.ca/site/media/index.php?id=3129&…

    Do they make a difference, internationally (notwithstanding recent turmoils?) I doubt they matter much at all.

    • what a strange pair of statements, meandering, unfocused, and with some weird editing errors (e.g., the first one is undated, the second opens with an unset acronym). The release on Libya reads like an especially bad cut-and-paste job, (e.g., the last paragraph is awful: "We at Rights & Democracy are concerned that after forty –two years of absolute dictatorship, the Libyan people find themselves in a situation where the institutional structure in the country is conducive to maintaining the status quo and lends legitimacy to the regime. Kadhafi wrongfully claims that the structure of his regime is democratic whereas he is using a legal structure of his own, which does not meet international democratic standards."). good to see all of those new hires in strategic communications are earning their keep!

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    • Perhaps PW will speak up, but I would not have thought the press releases from R&D would matter very much, even if they were well written.

      The advantage of an arms-length organization like R&D is that it conceivably could have contacts with individuals and organizations within Libya that could be extraordinarily useful right now in terms of flow of information, extraction of Canadian citizens and influencing future developments.

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        • It does not in any shape or form… even the shape or form in which it was written.
          contacts with individuals and organizations within Libya could be extraordinarily useful right now in terms of flow of information

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          • What an inane request. Ayman Nour was released in 2009, but are you actually asking that I provide evidence that international pressure was a factor in 1) keeping him alive and 2) his ultimate release?

            What I can note is that R&D acted fairly quickly in a public fashion to assist the international effort. They did so in a way that was nonpartisan. They carried out an action that was likely to be helpful if certainly not decisive in improving Ayman Nour's lot while in prison. That helpful action was not readily available to the government of the day.

            I presume that you think the activity was useless because Ayman Nour stayed in prison for the next 3 years. Indeed I don't even know if the delegation met with him. However, I would bet they met and encouraged others interested in democracy in Egypt. One of those people may be talking on the phone right now to Janice Stein getting informal input to their advisory panel for their democratic reform.

            It is Well-noted, that we cannot predict the timing of political transitions. That means we can never predict which small positive action will be fruitful and which will be in vain.

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          • Good thing you have no personal axe to grind re: R&D. I'm sure we all remember that.

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  4. “The United States, in concert with willing allies, would go around the region shooting until dictators started to get in line. I don't want to make too much fun of the notion. There was urgent peril. Soon London and Madrid were attacked too.”

    This does not make any sense at all. Neither the London nor the Madrid bombings have in any way been linked to Middle Eastern or North African dictatorships. They haven't even been directly tied to terrorist or resistance groups opposed to those dictatorships (such as al Qaeda). The London transit bombings were perpetrated by British-born men of Pakistani and Jamaican heritage who were appalled by UK involvement in the attacks on Afghanistan and Iraq, which FOLLOWED 9/11. The Madrid bombings' origins are murky, with evidence pointing to a hodgepodge of local actors including ETA bomb-makers, Moroccan phone card rings and low level drug traffickers.

    “What's important to realize is that the old model—a string of sullen and hopeless but relatively quiet dictatorships—is already gone forever.”

    This is far too sweeping a declaration to be made at this early stage. You later cite Canadian input “in cementing Eastern Europe's transition to democracy and free markets”, yet ignore that in Russia nascent democracy has completely folded. $16 a barrel oil stagnated the Russian economy and along with it democratic reform. Putin's strongman regime, powered by soaring oil prices, has snuffed out both a free press and free markets (just ask Mikhail Khodorkovsky).

    That the dictators of the 1970s and 1980s are falling is in no way a guarantee that they will not be quickly replaced by 21st-century versions, who may well be coddled by the West once again.

    • "The United States, in concert with willing allies, would go around the region shooting until dictators started to get in line. I don't want to make too much fun of the notion. There was urgent peril. Soon London and Madrid were attacked too.”

      Maybe that's an understandable error on Wells' part , when you consider just how the neo-cons [intentionally] conflated the concept of dictators with potential WMD ambitions and Al Qaeda inspired or perpetrated terrorism. However you and i may be leaning too much on hindsight here. In fairness Wells did say this almost immediately afterword:

      "There didn't seem to be a lot of alternatives. But once the Americans had destroyed two nasty regimes, in Afghanistan and Iraq, it became urgent to start collecting trophies, however tarnished"

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        • *too facile

  5. On a more superficial note, I kind of love that picture of Gaddafi. So f'in crazy. He's done more coke than Elton John and Eric Clapton combined, it's written all over his face. Sad that no one has tried to stand up this drug-addled megalomaniac before now. Even his kids could've said "Dad, you have a problem…" and tried to replace him using addiction as the reason.

    • No kidding – he and Charlie Sheen – telling it like it is. Those of us who have dealt with addiction know that meglomania is part of it – you don't even have to be running a country – you think you're running the whole dam world.

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  7. What exactly is it that we want our government to do at this point?

    They would be damned if they do something and they are damned already for doing nothing. What's the difference?

    When in 2008, PM Harper declared that the market would bounce back, he was being rediculed. Yet, what he had said was completely true.

    I guess most people don't want to hear the truth, and Harper has figured that one out.

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      • To tell you the truth, and nothing but the truth? Ok, then: I am not happy at all with how Canadian commentators pretend to be engaged in a meaningful discussion about our Canadian politics, if all they manage to do in reality is to come down on either decision our PM makes.

        A drive-by-smear at the end of a lenghty opinion is still a drive-by-smear. And placing such drive-by-smears at the end of an opinion piece is deliberate, no doubt about that in my mind.

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          • okay, I think we're clear: you're happy with the substance of Wells' assesment of Canada's foreign policy, you just don't like his mean tone.

          • R u having fun, making fun of me! :)

            His tone is fine. It is not a mean tone. It's the conclucions drawn at the end. It reads as if the whole opinion piece was constructed to be able to place that very last line at the bottom.

            Conclusion: Harper, whatever he does, is never good enough. End of (every) story.

            Btw, how long before people in the Middle East start figuring out for themselves that, for their sake, the Western leaders will not be raked over the coals unendlessly. Got that figured out (because you see how I managed to put that sentence going in two directions……) :)

          • "I don't know, I'd say you think that Canadians are supposed to be pretty gullible if you think that you can make a compelling argument around "Situation-A is like Situation-B, but I don't know about Situation A, and neither do I care for looking it up." bye for now."

            ———————-

            You've constructed that. I never brought in 1969 – you did. My comparrison to circumstances were not in relation to 1969 – you brought in that comparrison.

            Wells could have brought in such things as the Tory's refusal to attend Durban I and II, yet, not a word about that.

            But hey, the goodbye has been sent: the writings on the walls are always clear: 'if you no longer feel like debating then just insert something out of the blue (1969) and start accusing. Then finish off with a goodbye. You could be a Canadian…….

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  8. Paul Wells on Friday, February 25, 2011 7:00am – 20 Comments
    "Then, two months ago, on Dec. 17, a fed-up Tunisian street vendor named Mohammed Bouazizi set himself on fire. A new model for change in North Africa, quite undreamt-of by the alumni club of the Pentagon Defense PoliMubarak in Egypt was its next. More thugs will follow them into oblivioncy Board, was born. The Tunisian regime was its first victim. Hosni "

    Good article PW. Thank goodness someone is pointing out that these changes are coming about despite the neo-cons compelled democracy nightmare – not because of them. Although to be honest this is how human history often seems to progress; lurching from one failed policy to the next until we happen upon a workable solution or, as in this case, some unforeseen force for change imposes itself on the powers that be..
    Agreed we should be at least behind the vanguard here, if being Canadian we can't quite bring ourselves to be in it. It wont all happen on its own; that's the lesson of the Eastern European experience and the one of Iraq, where contrary to Rummies assertion they were going to line the streets with flowers and democracy was just going to blume because W said SO!

    • http://dougsaunders.net/2010/11/democracy-reform-

      Another good piece that butresses some of PW's points and gives some context as to why the stability model became popular again after the Bush democracy project fiasco. On a positive note Saunders may happily be proved wrong on the last point – that the neo-con experiment has poisoned the wells[heh] and set democracy back a decade;thanks largely to new technology and the bravery of the Arab men and women in the street.

  9. true story, Ignatieff being handed the Liberal leadership when the two competitors, Rae and Leblanc, bowed out of the race was basically the same as Colonel Gaddafi's 1969 coup d'état.

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    • Really?

      You must be thinking that I am comparing Ignatieff with Gadaffi. Wrong! I am comparing the making of choices: each political leader must make choices. Igantieff made the choice to be coronated. It was his choice and he used the excuse that the circumstances made him do it while the circumstances were, for the most part, constructed by the LPC itself. Gadaffi also has choices to make.

      btw, do u feel it ludicrously idiotic when, repeatedly, the comparrisons are made between Hitler and Harper, or Stalin and Harper. Your thoughts please…………

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    • "Why we delude ourselves into thinking we have any influence over great historical forces at work in far off lands is beyond me."

      Thank goodness the Canadians who helped write the UN Declaration of Human Rights didn't take your attitude…don't get in over your depth…don't get out of your comfort zone…leave it to others as Wells says. Somehow i doubt you took this view over the Orange revolution – neither did Harper. So, what's differnt here?
      Of course Harper's approach does have the benefit of being able to say: told you so…we need stability too badly to take any risks with democracy in the region.

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  13. "“In citing Gadhafi as a model, Rice has signaled the administration's priority for security over the cause of freedom,” Time magazine pointed out."

    That is just the problem, and the lesson the Yankees have never, ever learned. Democracy creates stability, not authoritarian rule, certainly not dictatorship. Freedom is the essence and the cause of stability. Repressing people is always something which will end badly. In the meantime, supporting regimes in the Arab world which repress their people is the best recruiting sergeant for Al Qaida. Since the assassination of Anwar Al Sadat, many Arab regimes have chosen dictatorship over democracy with the support of the West. This was always wrong. The United States made the same fatal error during the Cold War in Central America, and due to their very undemocratic political system, will continue to make the same mistakes in future in other regions. How sad for us all.

    • For such a confident people the US has rarely shown any great faith in promoting democracy [ exceptions being after the second world war of course]. Presumably they have plumped for dictatorial or authoritan rulers because there exists an illusion of control and a perception of predictability that goes with the territory; buying someone's loyalty for some reason is preferable to taking all the risks associated with democracy.
      Personally i think it has more to say about the kind of folks who make up the US defence and spying establishments than the bulk of the American people, who most definitely are democrats; many of our permanent defence officials and bureacrats are not.

  14. "A new model for change in North Africa, quite undreamt-of by the alumni club of the Pentagon Defense Policy Board…"

    It must take dedication to be that obtuse. Was Wells asleep through that "democracy is the yearning of every human heart" thing? Allow me to risk farcical understatement and submit that the idea of democratic uprisings in the Islamic world has occurred to the "Pentagon" types, most especially the "alumni club".

    As for Ghadafi, the lesson is that as long as the hawks were getting good press, the Libyans were interested in playing nice. When the major media voices aligned against muscular diplomacy, Ghadafi et al returned to type.

  15. Bottom line, cut off the lunatics money supply, he is suppose to have assets in other countries like, dare I say it Canada. Ounce his cash supply is cut, he can no longer pay for his thugs and the peoples of that nation will have their freedom and hopefully justice.

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