Sunday, August 19, 2007

Michael Byers: Politicizing the Non-Partisan

Foreign affairs "experts" come pretty cheap these days

Almost anyone with a decent handle on the subject and a shred of intellectual honesty should be able to recognize that Afghanistan is a non-partisan war.

Initiated and escalated by the Liberals (without parliamentary consultation) but extended by the Conservatives (albeit with a parliamentary vote), no one party can be credited with sole credit, or blame, for the mission.

Don't tell that to Michael Byers.

In fact, in terms of politicizing non-partisan Afghanistan mission along partisan lines, Michael Byers has been a one-man dynamo.

"This is Stephen Harper's war," Byers insists.

Yet in a recent interview with the Globe and Mail, Byers clearly demonstrates that not only does he have no idea what's going on in the Canadian government and little idea what's going on in Afghanistan, but no idea whatsoever of what's been going on in the world as a whole.

Byers tries to pin the blame for the mission of Stephen Harper, ignroes the various signs of progress in Afghanistan, and misrepresents the events unfolding in Darfur, particularly as they relate to a possible UN peacekeeping mission.

"The need for developed-country, force-multiplying peacekeepers is very real in Darfur and elsewhere," Byers says. "[Retired Lieut.-General Roméo] Dallaire reported that the UN was looking to Canada [for a Darfur peacekeeping contribution] because Canada was not a geopolitical player in northern Africa. It didn't have any stake in the oil fields in the Sudan."

Yet, it would seem that Byers is forgetting about Calgary-based Talisman Energy, a company that formerly held interests in Sudan's Heglig and Unity oilfields. In 2001 it was revealled that the Sudanese army was killing and relocating civilians from around Talisman's concessions in the two fields.

It's also important to challenge Byers on his definition of what makes a country a "geopolitical player". Canada has been spending hundreds of millions of dollars per year in foreign aid for developing countries, a significant portion of which are in Northern Africa. Canada has also been involved in peacekeeping operations in Rwanda, Somalia and Sierra Leone, among other places.

Given that peacekeeping is very much a geopolitical act -- it pressures and encourages combatants to maintain their peace agreements -- Byers is flirting with misconceptions at best, and outright misrepresting facts at worst.

"Canada was seen by the UN as the optimal developed-country middle power to lead a UN mission to Darfur," Byers continues. "Had Canada stepped forward and said, 'Look, we're ready to lead a mission,' we would have seen a serious UN peacekeeping force in Darfur long before now."

Again, simply not so. It wasn't until 5 May 2006 that the Khartoum government and Minni Mannawi signed a peace agreement. Howeer, Mannawi was only the leader of the largest faction of the Sudanese Liberation Movement. Other factions refused to sign the agreement.

Aside from the fact that any peace agreement in Sudan is incomplete and less than a year old, none of the delays are the result of a lack of a Canadian commitment to lead the mission. In fact, Sudanese president Omar al-Bashir has refused to accept UN peacekeepers, both immediately following the mission, even today. He reportedly insists that the proposed UN peacekeeping mission is really intended to protect Israel, partition the Sudan, and pirate its oil resources.

It's a common UN practice to secure the consent of all combatants before sending in peacekeeping troops. With some of the Sudanese Liberation Movement factions holding out, there is no deal on the table that falls within UN requirements for peacekeeping.

The only option vis a vis peacekeeping would actually have to be modelled after the 1992 Unified Task Force in Somalia, wherein the United States organized a task force to go in and forcefully pacify the region so UN peacekeeping operations could take over.

The 1992-93 mission, organized by the United States and mandated by the UN was actually more akin to warfare than actual peacekeeping.

With no agreement for UN peacekeeping in place, an independent (albeit UN-mandated) task force is the only real option on the table for Darfur. Then again, this is all beside the point. Despite what Michael Byers claims, the lack of UN peacekeeping operation in Sudan is not Stephen Harper's fault -- it's al-Bashir's.

Byers only reinforces his ignorance of the fact when he insists that "the lack of developed-country willingness to step in has been covered up by smoke and mirrors about how Khartoum isn't consenting and how the African Union wants it to be an all-African force."

Yet, the Khartoum government isn't consenting. Beyond this, Byers is wrong when he claims there's no developed-country willingness to step into the Sudanese void. Both Britain and the United States have supported UN peacekeeping operations in the Sudan to the extent that they have threatened sanctions against the Khartoum government.

Byers only cotninues to back himself into a rhetorical corner when he insists questions need be asked, "on whether the mission is succeeding. And realistically on what are the prospects for success and how do we measure success? And is it worth the cost inclusive of Canadian soldiers' lives?"

It isn't hard to determine whether or not Canadian efforts in Afghanistan are finding success. Consider the following figures: four million more childen in schools; 3.5 million refugees resettled; collection of 11,000 weapons; reconstruction efforts in 11,000 Afghan villages.

Furthermore, Byers is indulging himself in the same method of rationalization that allowed the peacekeeping failure in Rwanda, when American officials noted that 500,000 Rwandans would have to be killed before a single American life was worth risking.

Byers also advocates a cost-benefit analysis of the Afghanistan mission. Yet, such cost-benefit analyses would inevitably have to be focused based on whether or not Canadian foreign policy interests were being serviced. In Afghanistan, numerous interests -- participation in NATO, the elimination of states that harbour terrorists, the liquidation of terrorist networks -- are being met. In Sudan, Canada has few interests at stake (which is ironically why Byers feels so strongly that Canada should participate). In terms of cost-benefit analysis, Afghanistan is definitely the preferable mission.

When asked about what he considers success or failutre in Afghanistan, Byers is apprently perfectly happy to focus on what he cosniders the failures: "We certainly haven't managed to pacify the tribal areas up against the border with Pakistan, and as far as we know, Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda are still happily ensconced in northern Pakistan."

Byers does have his fair share of reasonable criticisms. "there are certainly components of the government of Afghanistan associated with atrocities committed prior to the Taliban coming into power," Byers notes. "I'm speaking here of the so-called warlords."

This is a fair criticism. Afghan warlords have historically funded their anti-Taliban operations from Opium profits, and have been implicated in new atrocities in the post-Taliban Afghanistan. It's hard to refute the Taliban's human rights abuses while in bed with groups that have dabbled in the same.

This is something that the Canadian government will have to address with the Karzai government.

In the end, it becomes apparent that Byers simply can't break himself of the meaningless peacekeeping/war dichotomy, when he notes that, "I think what we were doing in Kabul for a number of years was a quite appropriate mission, providing security and stability in the national capital in what was essentially a peacekeeping mission."

"But now we've moved into this counter-insurgency, aggressive search-and-destroy mission in Kandahar, and what, effectively, we are trying to do is secure centralized control over the entire territory of a country that's never been subject to centralized control before, and I think that's a fool's errand," Byers says.

But in the end, Byers fails to properly distinguish between peacekeeping and war. While peacekeeping at least flatters the aesthetic vanity of individuals such as Byers, it is, like war, an armed interventionalist foreign policy approach, and missions such as in Somalia and Rwanda show just how quickly a peacekeeping mission can transmute into a fully-fledged war.

Most revealing, however, is his inability to reconcile his partisan rhetoric with the realities of the mission.

"I am proud of our soldiers because they're doing their damnedest, but the decision as to whether they should be there is not their decision, and it's not a decision that should be a political partisan electoral decision," Byers insists.

This coming from the same individual who insists Afghanistan is Stephen Harpers war, despite the role of two different Prime Ministers from Harper's competing party, the Liberals, in putting Canada into both Afghanistan and into the Khandahar mission.

Byers has worked very hard indeed to politicize the war in Afghanistan along partisan lines. He has often resorted to outright misinformation in order to do this. He even, during an appearance on Mike Duffy Live tried to claim that General Rick Hillier negotiated the Canada/Afghanistan prisoner transfer agreement. The document, while signed by Hillier, was actually negotiated by then-Liberal party foreign affairs minister Bill Graham.

During the same appearance, Byers insisted he didn't want to take part in a partisan discussion. Yet, his rhetoric on the Afghanistan mission has been little if not batantly partisan, and it makes it difficult -- if not impossible -- to take him seriously.

Michael Byers has turned out not to be the non-partisan commentator he claims to be. Which is fair enough. He's turned out to not be half the expert he's supposed to be.


  1. I don't understand the logic behind people like Michael Byers, Maybe someone can explain to me. What makes a mission into Darfur more worthy than the Afghanistan mission?

  2. Oh, because it's "peacekeeping," not "war!".

    It's all a matter of intellectual vanity.

    It isn't as if the Taliban didn't perpetrade human rights abuses in Afghanistan.

  3. That's one very good explanation for what motivates a Byers. Here's a second one: as an academic, he works in an environment where getting published saying the right things in the right venues counts.

    Slowly Canadian universities have moved into a more European framework, where academics routinely make political statements in newspapers.

    Getting published as he did, putting forth that conventional wisdom, appeals to his Dean, and hence enhances his career on campus.

    From a self-serving point of view, it also won't hurt to receive another offer from a better instititution some day (one that likes to hire public figures) - and possibly a little financial love doing a study or two, or serving in an appointed role, for a future Liberal government, which has usually also liked these kinds of people and these kinds of rumblings.

    Finally, take a look at the original post here at the Nexus. He got some things right, eh? That lets the editor off the hook, because now the piece shows "balance".

    Lovely world, eh?

  4. I just don't think that Byers is being honest about his motivations. If he wants to be a partisan commentator, I have little issue with that. But he wants to make partisan (and often untrue) comments under the guise of being non-partisan, and that I can't accept.

    It's actually the same principle that has stopped me from signing up for Blogging Canadians as a non-partisan blog: the Nexus is clearly not a non-partisan blog.


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