Thursday, October 26, 2006

Interviewing Stephane Dion

I interviewed Liberal leadership candidate Stephane Dion on Sunday. I must thank Jason Cherniak for helping set things up and say special thanks to Dion for agreeing to do the interview. Of all the candidates, Dion has been the most accessible to the blogging community.

I had emailed the candidates a survey back in September and used the questions from that survey in interviewing Dion. Martha Hall Findlay is the only one to respond to the survey by the way.

Given his support for "Empire Lite", does Ignatieff have the potential to be as divisive a figure within the party as Tony Blair has become within his party?”

He did not take the bait. He neither implied, nor explicitly said that Tony Blair is a controversial figure within his own party. The only thing he had to say about Blair was that he has been a very successful politician. He added that he won three majorities. I waited for him to drop Chrétien’s name, but he never did draw the parallel. It is a good thing too. Outside of three majorities a piece and maybe rivalries with uppity finance ministers, the similarities stop there.

On the one hand, it is understandable that he would not take the bait. However in other ways it is not. It is understandable in so far as it is not considered good form to be brutally honest about foreign heads of states --- friendly ones anyway. However, it is widely accepted that Blair is a divisive figure and saying so would hardly raise eyebrows. Tactically drawing such a comparison would make sense. It would help place Dion’s call for a review of Ignatieff’s interventionist writings into a favorable political context. After all, one of the dominant themes of the Liberal leadership race is reconciliation and party peace. Liberals have grown tired of infighting between rival power blocks Having just emerged from a civil war, they have no stomach for another. Dion should be warning the Liberal party that what happened with Tony Blair could happen with Ignatieff. Indeed, he should be warning the Liberals that it could be worse. The British Labour party is in better shape finically, politically and in terms of their base of support than Liberal Party of Canada. In its weakened state the Liberal party can not afford another war, especially an ideological one. Moreover, given all the talk about the party brass reconnecting with the party’s base, the Liberal party can not elect a leader who is fundamentally out of step with views of the party’s rank and file, a la Blair and Labour party.

All that being said, Dion went right after Ignatieff. Dion mentioned a 2002 paper in which Ignatieff that some kind of two state solution should be militarily imposed on the Palestinian Authority. This is really quite something and I am amazed that this paper had not come to light before. A lot of the accusations thrown at Ignatieff, including some of the ones Rae leveled on Saturday, are pretty thin gruel. This is not one of them. It is hard to imagine anything that would be a bigger requirement tool for Al Qaeda than the US sending troops into Gaza and the West bank to impose a two state “solution”. There is no question in my mind now that Ignatieff does not have any kind of appreciation for the unintended consequences of war and I do not want him controlling Canadian foreign policy. When it comes to Ignatieff’s foreign policy views, Rae has landed the two biggest rhetorical punches, but Dion has landed by far the more substantive policy blows and this was certainly one of them. Dion was, rightly, indigent about being drowned out by Ignatieff supporters when he tired to raise the subject to this paper at Saturday’s debate in Montreal.

The Senate committee on marijuana concluded that the "Scientific evidence overwhelmingly indicates that cannabis is substantially less harmful than alcohol"? Do you agree with this conclusion?

He said no. I know Dion is a bit of a contrarian, but this is ridiculous. I will give him points for consistency though. He has been consistency wrong in what he says about marijuana. Previously he told me that “potent pot” is one reason for keeping marijuana illegal. This was bad enough. It strikes me as akin to saying alcohol should be banned because gin has higher alcohol content than beer. Indeed, if anything potent pot should be welcomed. After all, the most prominent health effect related to marijuana is that it is usually smoked. The more potent the pot, the less people have to smoke to achieve the same high. The point is mute though; potent pot is a myth.

Anyway, world wide, since the 1970s there have been literally millions of deaths from Alcohol poisoning and cirrhosis of the liver. I challenge Dion to find one case in the medical literature of someone dying from a marijuana overdose or chronic intake of THC. Some chronic users of marijuana get headaches if they go off the drug. 10% of chronic alcoholics suffer seizures if they do not have a drink and 5% suffer delirium tremens.

Dion’s position is the medical equal of denying global warming. Maybe some things that nutter Paul Steckle says has worn off on him.

Dion feels that marijuana possession should be decriminalized; he wants fines imposed in place of criminal penalties. He noted that Canada’s possession laws are applied unequally throughout the country and that a system of fines would be. This is debatable. However even if granted, a system fines would not yield the results he hopes for. For example, there is not a scintilla of evidence to suggest it would reduce consumption.

Such a policy might also yield results he might not have expected. Take Vancouver, it is explicit policy of Vancouver police department, for example, not to charge people for mere possession. Surrounding police forces are equally lenient, but not as upfront. In other words, decriminalization already exists in the Lowermainland on a de facto basis. One reason is that it is simply not practical to do so; charging the huge number people caught in possession of marijuana would cripple the justice system. Another reason is that marijuana possession is not viewed as a serious crime by either the courts or by large numbers of police. If a system of fines was imposed, Vancouverites will not take kindly to such a crack down for a whole host of reasons. Most importantly they would be uppity because they would view the law is illegitimate. Many would see it as akin to fining someone for drinking a beer in a permissible location. They will see it as an illegitimate money grab and the seeds of revolt would be sown. It would be better for Dion and other closeted drug warriors to let sleeping dogs lay.

Decriminalization would also do something else. Although it is explicit policy of the VPD not to charge people for mere possession, the VPD still charge a large number of people with possession and the same is true of other Lowermainland police forces. There is a simple reason for this. Possession is the fall back position whenever the police can not make trafficking charges stick. Put differently the large number of people charged with possession in BC is not a reflection of strict enforcement, but is rather a reflection of the shear size of the marijuana industry here. Marijuana is called weed for a reason; it is grows like one. Couple this with the fact that people here no longer believe in the drug laws and one would have more success trying to drain the great lakes with a spoon than stomping it out. Decriminalize marijuana while at the same time increasing the penalties for trafficking the drug and prohibition in BC will be on the verge of collapse. As it stands, BC prosecutors are prosecuting fewer and fewer people for marijuana trafficking and stiffer sentences will only make this trend more pronounced. There would also be no lesser charge of possession to charge dealers with.

While I welcomed decriminalization for these reasons, there is a less painful solution: legalization. Besides, I too want to see a uniform marijuana policy and the thought of watching heads of social conservative’s heads throughout the land explode gives me a warm fuzzy feeling. The latter will only happen if marijuana is officially legalized.

Can NATO succeed in both stabilizing Afghanistan and destroying the country's number one industry, the opium crop?

Dion said yes, but it was hardly a firm one. He said that what needs to happen is a “redesign of the mission”. He said that what is needed is a “Marshall Plan for Afghanistan”. In other words, despite the fact that several of Dion’s people have referred Gerard Kennedy as policy light weight, Dion’s position along with the rest of the candidates has become Kennedy’s remake the mission position. The reference to the Marshall Plan though is Dion’s and Dion’s alone. It is also not one that works.

The Marshall plan helped rebuild war torn Europe. The operative world being “rebuild”. There is nothing to “rebuild” in the European sense in Afghanistan. Indeed, even in high point of the modernizing zeal in the 1970s, Afghanistan’s child morality was worse than Bangladesh’s! To see how wrong the analogy is consider for a second what Germany, for example, was prior to WW2. The German’s had the by far and away the world’s most advanced chemical industry. The country had produced nearly half the Nobel Price winners. It had the largest coal reserves in Europe. (It was not until the 1950s the gas replaced coal.) It had the most educated population in the world. And it was also not until 1945 that industrial production fell below 1942 and that was not because of any decline in capacity, but was rather due mainly to transportation bottlenecks related to allied bombing. Throw in the fact the influx of millions of upon millions of ethnic Germans from Soviet sector, Poland, and the Sudetenland and elsewhere and you have the makings of a Wirtschaftswunder, i.e., an economic miracle.

Afghanistan, by comparison, is country made up mostly of illiterate peasants without running water or electricity. There is no developed infrastructure, no university system and the opium production is the country’s only viable industry. Most Afghans, it is a young country, know nothing but war. To make matters worse, the vast majority of educated Afghans left long ago and will never return to live.

Decades of development theory have shown there is no magic formula when it comes to development. Western countries have a hard enough time developing their own hinterlands let alone the world’s most impoverished and underdeveloped regions.

Dion also mentioned several of the Asian Tigers, viz. South Korea and Taiwan. Referencing them made more sense than referencing the Marshall plan. However it falls down in several respects. Furthermore, the Tigers where not exactly models of democracy in action.

As with the other candidates, Dion is open to the idea of Western governments buying opium to replenish medical supplies from Afghan farmers.

Suppose next spring there was no let up in the number of Taliban attacks and in the number of Canadians dying, would you call for an end to the mission?

Dion was non committal. However, he said that it would have to be considered.

Given that Al Qaeda has singled Canada out because of our presence in Afghanistan and given that the alleged motivation of the Ontario 17 was our presence in Afghanistan , does our presence in Afghanistan make it more likely that Canada will be attacked by terrorists, home grown or otherwise?

Dion ducked the question. At least, I hope he did. He said that the likelihood of a terrorist attack depended on how effective our police forces and intelligence agencies are. The more effective our police forces the lesser the likelihood of attack. He might as well have uttered the following absurdity; seeing as how Canada has a more effective police force than Brazil, the likelihood that Canada would be attacked by Al Qaeda or Al Qaeda sympathizers is less than Brazil. Yes, an effective police force will lessen the probability of a terrorist attack, but when calculating the probability of an attack a bigger factor bigger is how many people are motivated to carry out such an attack. Motives matter. Only a politician trying to duck a touchy subject would dare pretend otherwise. Now, pace, they are hate our freedoms and multi ethnic make up, Harper, what motives home grown Jihadis is Canadian foreign policy. Just ask Crown prosecutors developing the case against the Ontario 17. As for Al Qaeda, right wing commentators take a perverse delight in noting that Al Qaeda has singled Canada out for attack. They see it as proof that Canadians are hopelessly naïve not to whole heartedly support the war on terror. What they fail to note, however, and this is testament to their complete lack of intellectual honesty, is why Al Qaeda singled Canada out for attack. Canada was singled out because of our presence in Afghanistan.

“What do your governments want from their alliance with America in attacking us in Afghanistan? I mention in particular Britain, France , Italy , Canada, Germany and Australia.

We warned Australia before not to join in the war in Afghanistan, and against its despicable effort to separate East Timor. It ignored the warning until it woke up to the sounds of explosions in Bali."

I asked Dion the following 5 questions.

1) Canada lags behind far behind virtually every other Western nation in terms of the number vacation days its citizens are guaranteed. Is it time that Canada bridge the vacation gap?

EU minimum is 4 weeks
Switzerland 4 weeks
New Zealand 4 weeks (starting in 2007)
Norway 5 weeks

2) Should Canada pass an euthanasia law, a la Holland ?

3) Other Western countries (e.g., Germany, Finland and Britain)have public dental care. Should Canada?

4) Do you support a proposed heroin maintenance program for Vancouver?

5) In order to attract more international grad students and just as importantly keep a higher percentage of international grad students in country after they graduate, Canada should offer citizenship to those foreign graduate students who complete a graduate degree from, and this important, a public Canadian university. Does this idea have any merit?

He was no made no commitment to any, but he did not rule out any either. He only made two comments of note. With regard to the proposed heroin maintenance program, he said it was an interesting idea. He also commented on the last question. He worried about what kind effect such a policy would have on “developing” countries, i.e., the reverse brain drain. This surprised me. It was the kind of mushy liberalism at its worst answer I have come to expect from Ignatieff and not someone as hard edged as Dion.

Finally I asked Dion a few light hearted, get to know you questions.

What was the first car you owned?

Renault 12 was his response.

Name the last 2 movies you have seen.

Dion seemed dumbfounded that I should ask this question. He racked his brain for an answer and apologized. He said the leadership race did not give him much time for leisure. The last movie he saw was Al Gore’s Inconvenient Truth. He also mentioned seeing Fahrenheit 911. However, after consulting with someone in French, he decided that in between seeing 911 he had seen Eight Below. He asked me if I was familiar with the movie. I said no, but after he gave a quick run down of the story I recognized the title. I sought his confirmation. “The kids movie?” He seemed annoyed by this and responded with “no the Disney movie”. I had to smile.

Monday, October 16, 2006

Martha Hall Findlay Ignatieff and Afghanistan

MHF agrees with Ignatieff. Harper lacks a strategy for Afghanistan. However she believes that this was evident all along and “Harpers lack of strategy is why I would have voted no”. This sets her and Ignatieff apart; both agree with the mission in principle, but she was more skeptical of Harper’s ability to pull it off.

Politically, this is a very clever approach and one Ignatieff and Kennedy should be very concerned about.

Ignatieff is found of saying that the Americans have made “every single mistake in Iraq and then some.” Other so called liberal hawks have said the same and over time a distinct line of criticism of the Iraq war has arisen. Namely, regardless of whether one believed in the Iraq mission in principle, Bush was never one to realize the hopes the pro war faction had for the war. Ignatieff has not yet gone as far as many other prominent liberal hawks in lamenting his support of the mission, but this line of criticism especially, in light of the most recent Lancet study estimating that upwards of 600,000 Iraqis have been killed in post war violence, leaves him with very little left to hold onto.

Where this bleeds into Ignatieff’s support of Afghanistan mission is that given Harper ideological closeness to the Neo Cons, his strong support of the Iraq war and yes his lack of clear strategy, Ignatieff, of all people, should have been suspicious of Stephen Harper’s ability to carry out the mission. Instead, despite a mere 6 hours of debate, he blindly threw his support behind Harper’s extension. Ignatieff should have been once bitten twice shy. Instead he backed both and laments how both missions have been prorogated; add to this his foot and mouth disease and it is little wonder why there are concerns about judgment – or lack there of.

MHF line is certainly an improvement on Dion’s line, for example. Under the guise that there was minimal debate in the house, Dion has still not offered an opinion on the mission. Dion is right; the reason he gave for voting no was a good reason. In a democracy, process matters. It is no reason, however, for not forming an opinion since.

As I said before, Kennedy should also be concerned about MHF line of questioning. Kennedy has raised questions about the mission and in many ways this has become the de facto Liberal position and the one MHF was taking aim at. That said, Kennedy has held out hope that the mission can still be transformed, but is his implicit belief that Harper, among others, can still right the ship, justified? MHF agreed with Ignatieff that Harper is not the right person for the job and I agree with them both. The problem for Ignatieff is that she is free to adopt this line and he, Mr. Johnny come lately, not.

Saturday, October 14, 2006

Ignatieff Right: TDH Wrong

TDH: “Article 147 of the Fourth Geneva Convention defines war crimes as: "Wilful killing, torture or inhuman treatment, including...wilfully causing great suffering or serious injury to body or health, unlawful deportation or transfer or unlawful confinement of a protected person, compelling a protected person to serve in the forces of a hostile power, or wilfully depriving a protected person of the rights of fair and regular trial,...taking of hostages and extensive destruction and appropriation of property, not justified by military necessity and carried out unlawfully and wantonly." I fail to see where Israel is guilty of committing war crimes [so defined].”

You fail to see a lot of things. Granted Hezobollah’s leaders are full of shit, but bombing sewage treatment plants would be classified as a war crime according to the definition set forth under the Geneva Convention: “extensive destruction and appropriation of property, not justified by military necessity and carried out unlawfully and wantonly."