Tuesday, January 01, 2008

Michael Byers and the Neo-Conservative Bogeyman

Bali, Bono, and Bush -- oh, my!

When Canadians want in-depth analysis from an intellectually lazy ideologue, they need look no further than Michael Byers.

In what appears like it could be a concentrated effort by the Toronto Star to rally public opinion in favour of defeating the sitting Conservative government, Byers does what Byers has done best -- twisting the facts to find fault with absolutely everything about Prime Minister Stephen Harper's government:

""So, how does it feel to be the citizen of a rogue state?"

The British professor asking the question was serious.

We were in Cambridge, England, and yet the words "Kyoto," "Bali" and "Canada" were on many lips.

For on the other side of the planet, Environment Minister John Baird was blocking an agreement that would have bound the world's wealthiest countries to specific targets for reducing their greenhouse gas emissions after 2012 – when the Kyoto Protocol expires.

Canada, traditionally a proponent of multilateral co-operation and environmental stewardship, was thumbing its nose at the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the 2,500-member scientific body that had recently warned that the planet faces "abrupt and irreversible" damage unless greenhouse gas emissions are stabilized by 2015.

Canada was also ignoring the pleas of Kevin Rudd, Australia's new prime minister, who explained that an agreement was necessary because "there is no plan B; there is no other planet any of us can escape to."
Yes, Michael. When the Prime Minister of Australia calls on us to sacrifice our economic future in the name of a panic-stricken pipe dream, we should reply "ready, aye, ready."

But, as he'll later allude, when the President of the United States calls on us to participate in the battle against terrorism -- as much a threat to Canada as any other country -- we should tell him to "fuck off" on principle alone.


"Instead, the Canadian delegation embraced the stubbornly unilateral, anti-environmental stance of U.S. President George W. Bush. They mimicked his demand – always intended as a deal breaker – that any specific binding targets include developing states."
And yet Byers never seems to want to explain why, precisely, requiring developing countries to contribute to the fight against climate change should be a deal-breaker. Or, rather, why it shouldn't.

Perhaps he'd like to overlook that most of the world's poorest countries also have the most lax environmental laws. Yet, in the name of staving off an "imminent environmental catastrophe" that is unproven to actually be imminent, he would issue such countries a free pass.

That is, fundamentally, the wrong approach by any regard.

"The move caught some foreign experts by surprise. Canada had previously shown the good sense not to join in Bush's most egregious mistakes, including the Iraq War.

But then Stephen Harper became prime minister, with views on foreign policy that parallel those of American neo-conservatives. Like them, Harper sees the Kyoto Protocol – arguably the most important treaty ever – as "essentially a socialist scheme to suck money out of wealth-producing nations."

Harper's Bush-like views extend beyond climate change. In July 2006, he described the far-reaching destruction of Lebanese infrastructure as a "measured" response to the abduction of an Israeli soldier, souring our relations with Arab states and precluding a diplomatic role for Canada in the Middle East.
Of course, Byers is conveniently ignoring the fact that Israel was also responding to rocket attacks perpetrated by Hezbollah against civilian targets -- a war crime by any regard. Then again, Byers' analysis, as usual, depends on ignoring key facts.

"He has also picked unnecessary quarrels with China over human rights, Russia over the Arctic and Iran over ambassadors, rather than seizing opportunities to constructively engage these increasingly important states."
One may wonder how it is that, in an opinion article stressing, in part, Canada's need to lead on human rights, why Byers would dismiss quarrels with China over that very issue to be unnecesssary? One may wonder why Byers would dismiss Canada's confrontation with Russia over arctic sovereignty, considering that he actually grudgingly admitted, during a speech in Edmonton, that the Harper government has been the best of Canada's recent governments in regards to this issue. One may wonder why Byers would want to condemn Harper for recalling Canada's ambassador to Iran in protest to the treatment of the Zahra Kazemi case while he simultaneously condemns the government for refusing to seek leniency for Canadians facing the death penalty abroad. There's also a little something to be said for how Iran treats its prisoners -- a point seemingly lost on Byers despite the amount of protest he's raised over alleged Canadian complicity in the torture of Afghan prisoners of war.

The answer, it turns out, is actually very simple: his misgivings have nothing to do with human rights, arctic sovereignty or diplomacy. They have everything to do with ideology.

Of course, when waging ideological warfare against conservatives in print, Byers clearly takes no shame in sinking to any and all depths in order to link Harper to the political left's favourite omnipresent bogeyman:

"In Afghanistan, Harper has stubbornly opposed negotiations with dissident groups, shown a casual disregard for the rights of detainees, and seems to view the mission mostly as a way of currying favour with the United States.

Why else would his defence minister, Peter MacKay, invite the U.S. ambassador along for a Christmas visit to Canada's troops in Kandahar?

Other than the fact that the United States and Canada are allies in the war in Afghanistan? We wouldn't know, mr Byers. Why don't you tell us.

"Closer to home, Harper has refused to repatriate Omar Khadr, a Canadian child soldier arbitrarily imprisoned at Guantánamo Bay. He has curtailed the practice of seeking clemency for all Canadians sentenced to death abroad. He's even sought to curtail the civil liberties of Canadians by extending our anti-terrorist laws – now, more than six years after 9/11."

But why does Byers have nothing to say about the fact that the anti-terrorist laws in question not only were enacted by a majority Liberal government, but also about the fact that the sunsetting of the laws in question has proven to have had a detrimental effect on the Air India inquiry -- the search for justice in the worst terrorist attack ever perpetrated upon Canadians.

Why does Byers have nothing to say about the fact that Khadr was, at 15 years old, a trained terrorist fighter who had already drawn blood in the battlefield? Faux-progressives like Byers may hold a good deal of disdain for the detention of enemy combatants in Guantanamo Bay, but they should not fail to recognize that , whether they like it or not, Omar Khadr is an enemy combatant. If Byers wants to go so far as to suggest that Khadr should be issued a "get out of jail free" card, he should remember the experience Algeria has had with released terrorists.

Furthermore, one may wonder what to make of his suggestion that Canada should try to impose its views regarding human rights vis a vis the death penalty on the United States when he's already suggested that confronting China over human rights is "unncessary".

Of course, Byers wouldn't be a proper ideologue if his arguments didn't range from the specious and hypocritical to the outright fickle, like so:

"In September 2003, the cover of The Economist showed a moose in shades under the banner Canada is `cool'. Can anyone imagine us earning the same accolade today?"

That's right. That's what Canadian foreign policy is all about. It's not about supporting the interests of Canadians abroad -- it's about making Canada cool.

Readers may roll their eyes at their own discretion.

"Thanks to Harper, Canada has become the pliant instrument of a failed U.S. presidency. We are now, for all intents and purposes, a vassal state."

Despite the fact that Harper has actually stood up to the United States on a number of issues, including Byers' beloved arctic sovereignty pet issue.

But Byers now gets to the point. We can find out what all of these various intentional half-truths and flip-flops are all about:

"But in the same way that Harper's government has hijacked our foreign policy, so could a new government bring us back on course."

Yet one wonders what to make of this claim when they consider the "hijacked" foreign policy isn't really all that different than that of the previous Liberal government: Afghanistan, leading in the establishment of climate change agreements abroad while taking precious little tangible action at home and funnelling billions of dollars in foreign aid through unaccountable international organizations.

Somehow, a new government will be completely different, even if mr Byers can't assure us as to how.

"Canada, with its large and resource-rich territory, robust economy, and diverse and internationalized population, could exercise a considerable and beneficial influence on the world stage.

On climate change, geography gives us the potential to be a leader in wind, solar, geothermal and tidal power. Let's change our tax system to favour sustainable energy sources, and stop the lunacy of unrestrained development in the Alberta oil sands. Let's recognize – as the Danes and Germans have – that those who make technological advances first, reap the greatest gains.

Instead of dragging our heels on emissions reduction targets, let's be bold and brave. Let's decide – as Norway has – to become a carbon neutral country by the middle of the century.

Yeah, Michael. We all know how successful Norway has been on meeting its Kyoto obligations.

"Binding targets are not the problem. The problem is the lack of political courage to speak straight to Canadians and to implement fundamental changes to the way we work and play."

No, Michael. The problem is that governments that claimed to be concerned with climate change spent the better part of a decade doing absolutely nothing about it, and now campaign rigorously on the very same issue they did absolutely nothing about, expecting Canadians to believe they will somehow do something other than absolutely nothing in future, while foreign policy "experts" like Michael Byers insist such a government would do something other than absolutely nothing, past performance to the contrary.

"In Afghanistan, it's time to move from a combat-oriented approach to one that focuses on negotiation, peacemaking and nation-building.

It's time to ensure that Canadian soldiers are never complicit in prisoner abuse by stopping detainee transfers until the Afghan prison system has been comprehensively reformed.
This seems like a novel approach, but one wonders what the alternatives are. Would Byers like to suggest that Canadian troops establish a prison to hold prisoners of war in Afghanistan, thereby usurping a function of the state?

Progressives used to agree that imperialism such as that was a bad thing. Real progressives probably still would. Byers and his cabal of faux-progressives? Not so much.

"It's time to move NATO troops out, and UN peacekeepers in.

And then, let's get serious about the "responsibility to protect" where it's needed most: in Africa.

Let's make sure the UN peacekeeping missions in Darfur and Congo succeed. Let's help bring peace to northern Uganda and a change of government in Zimbabwe. Let's ramp up our overseas development assistance to those countries burdened by drought and disease.
Once again, Byers engages in the pacifistic fantasy of leaving the war effort (war is such a dirty word) to embark on a peacekeeping mission in a country in which the government has decreed that UN peacekeepers would be treated as foreign invaders. China, with whom confrontation over human rights is "unnecessary", is also involved in Sudan.

To top it all off, Byers then indulges himself in pontificating on yesterday's issues:

"On the perennial problem of nuclear proliferation, let's show leadership by admitting the obvious and formally declare Canada to be a nuclear-weapons-free zone.

Let's use the UN Law of the Sea Convention and Arctic Council as opportunities to make the Far North a zone of co-operation. Let's work with the Russians, Americans and Danes on mapping the Arctic Ocean and ensuring that shipping and resource development there is safe and environmentally sound.
For once in this sad little excuse for an op/ed article, Byers actually has a decent idea. But then he goes right back to beating the Bush-as-bogeyman drum, suggesting that, somehow, it's Canada's responsibility to manage the United States economy.

"As for the United States, let's face up to the economic mess that Bush has created with his tax cuts for the rich and vast increases in military spending.

Instead of shrugging our shoulders in dismay or complacency, why not seize the moment to change the balance of rights and obligations in NAFTA? The renegotiation of international agreements is a normal consequence of shifts in relative power, a shift that in this case favours Canada.

We are the United States' largest trading partner and primary source of secure energy, making them as dependent on us as we are on them. And our economy is now outperforming theirs.

So, let's rid ourselves of the NAFTA provisions that mandate U.S. access to Canadian oil and gas and require that the prices charged for energy exports to the United States not exceed those charged to Canadians. Let's opt out of the mechanism that enables U.S. companies to initiate binding arbitration whenever their businesses can claim to have been detrimentally affected by Canadian laws – including laws designed to protect our health and environment.
One wonders who Byers imagines western Canada, in particular, will export oil and gas to, considering that it isn't economically feasible to export it overseas, or even to Eastern Canada.

"To suggest this is hardly anti-American. It is merely to advocate exactly what they would do were they in our position.

On all foreign policy issues, let's not be afraid to conduct our own analyses, to have our own national debates. In the end, we'll likely decide to work with the United States about 95 per cent of the time.
And yet, when the Harper government elects to work with the United States on initiatives actually started under Liberal governments, they're somehow "pandering to U.S. interests".


"On the remaining 5 per cent, let's not be surprised when the U.S. government expresses displeasure or even makes threats. That's what good negotiators do, as they prepare for the next bargaining round.

It's what happens over the long term that matters. And it's in the long-term interests of everyone – including Americans – to have a strong, friendly, yet independent country to the north of the United States.

It certainly is. But how does one balance this particular assertion on Byers' part against past practices on behalf of the Canadian government -- which seem to represent a sort of "good ol' days" that Byers is eager to return to -- which actually made us weaker and less independent than the practices of the current government?

The dreamland that Byers lives in and reality as it actually exists never seem to fully resemble one another. But Byers only proves that in the conclusion of his article:

"Bono said it best: "The world needs more Canadas." But the Irish rock star meant a particular kind of Canada – a Canada that is sovereign, compassionate, committed to peace, willing to co-operate, yet also prepared to lead.

This year, let's elect a government that shares this vision. Let's shake the "rogue state" label – before it sticks.
Sovereign. Compassionate. Committed to peace. Willing to cooperate. Prepared to lead.

Ironically for Byers, that does sound an awful lot like Canada's current government to those who, unlike Byers, aren't twisting fact to ideological ends.

Canada has strengthened its sovereignty by strengthening its military -- which provides us with the ability to defend that sovereignty -- and by re-staking its claim to its arctic sovereignty. Canada has proven itself to be compassionate by resolving to prevent the Taliban from returning to power in Afghanistan. Likewise is its commitment to peace (vis a vis ridding the world of states that harbour terrorists) and its will to cooperate with the NATO coalition. Canada has proven its leadership not only in establishing a productive framework within which everyone will be required to contribute to the fight against climate change (which is a serious issue, if not the imminent catastrophe that Byers and his fellow panic-mongers insist), but also within the United Nations, NATO, the Francophonie and the Commonwealth.

And Canada has done all of this under a Conservative government.

If Byers wants to twist facts and spread half-truths in order to try to suggest the opposite, that's certainly up to him. But it certainly casts serious shadows of doubt on the credibility of the Toronto Star that they would print his article without even bothering to fact-check.

Then again, perhaps they, like Byers, are simply hoping that Canadians will be so ideologically fixated that they won't bother to check the facts.

But this does speak volumes about Byers and his claim to a progressive world view. A true progressive -- or so many of us are led to believe -- would never engage in such blatant misinformation in pursuit of their political agenda. Fostering a debate based on such factually ignorant dogma is actually quite a regressive act, not a progressive one.

When one recalls that Leo Strauss -- a prominent neoconservative thinker who is largely credited with establishing this school of political thought -- advocated in favour of "the noble lie", it seems that Byers and the neoconservative bogeyman that he seems to fear so much aren't that dissimilar at all.


  1. Extremely well done!

    As I read through your step-by-step rebuttal of Byers, Patrick, it occurred to me that most Canadians would agree with at least one of his points (they are so much a part of the zeitgeist). Even conservatives would do so.

    Never has it been more important to challenge these shibboleths and slogans that pass as "thought" (but are not). Even those who hold to these positions Byers puts forward need to get past the rhetoric and really think their ideas through.

    Won't happen, I know, but still, the new year is young and dreams are still part of it...

  2. Nice dissection and shred job.

    Byers just brings out the best in a cynic doesn't he. He is the personification of delusion.


  3. In a lot of ways, I find that the gaping holes in Byers' reasoning closely resemble the logical shortcomings that Raphael Alexander recently alluded to pertaining to Iran.

    I understand why people politically motivated enough would promote Byers as a foreign policy expert. I would just expect that he would have enough self respect to do his homework before he writes. Either that, or he's intentionally misinforming people.

    Either way, he's dangerous to the very idea of rational discourse.

  4. I can`t help but be dismayed at how byers can feel that he is morally superior to us, the unwashed masses, to the point that he thinks that he can virtually say anyhting that he wants to say in support of his own ideology no matter how false or at the very least, misleading it is. Trudeau once said in the early seventies and I loosely quote " if you want to control the people you do it by indoctrination starting at birth, then elementary school through high school and into post secondary. then you can have them believe anything you want. Byers is obviously either a stooge ignorantly born into this ideology or a stooge who knows exactly what he is doing. either way his kind of methodology smacks distastfully of communism in it`s most devious form.


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