Category: Cdn Politics

Cdn Politics

Quick thoughts on the Thinkers Conference

So, many people have asked what I thought of the thinkers conference. I was hesitant to write anything, as I am far from objective (I was involved in planning early iterations of the conference, some aspects of which made it into the final event), but for what it’s worth, here are a couple of comments.

The use of new media, directly integrated into the conference was one of the best i have ever seen. A real accomplishment. Ignatieff was blown away that people were asking questions live to panelists from Nunavut and Labrador. And he was right to be. This is a huge accomplishment for the web team, who have fought to get the freedom, flexibility and independence they need to engage properly in the new media world. After this conference, they have earned the space they need. Congrats go to my friend Marc Gendron, who leads the team.

Some of the panels were very good. The pensions session in particular was serious and presented a real range of diverse options. For the most part the Davos style worked very well. The buzz in the room was quite positive. If the Liberal party emerges from the conference with a clear sense that the health care status quo will bankrupt the provinces, and that the demographic shift has massive economy-wide implications (both of which were repeated over and over), then this is a positive on the policy front.

On the more critical side, I would have three comments.

First, the speakers were dominated by usual suspects. While some were great (Fortin, Dodge, Fowler and Stein in particular), others felt tired, and as if the party was looking back rather than forward. This could have been an ideal place to give voice to a new generation of policy thinkers – those the Liberal party will need to help them develop a 21st century agenda.

Second, the speakers generally outlined problems, rather than solutions. In the opening scene setting session, this was useful. Fortin’s powerful demographic prognosis was the bitter pill necessary to frame a serious conference. The subsequent thematic panels, however, would have been more effective had each speaker been asked for an innovative policy idea. These ideas could have then focused the discussion and provided focal points for post conference planning. What’s more, asking each speaker for innovative, out of the box ideas, could have identified policies and ideological perspectives that should be brought into the mainstream discourse. This is precisely what Cameron is doing in the UK – who in one year, has brought Philip Blond’s big society ideas from radical niche policy to a central pillar of his manifesto. In so doing, he is re-aligning the British political spectrum – exactly, in my opinion, what Ignatieff needs to do.

Third, while many friends were there and it was a lot of fun, the audience was the wrong demographic. They were overwhelmingly Liberal partisans, mostly from 1990s governments, a vast majority older male. This is undoubtedly due to the significant entrance fee, and the fact the payment had to be made to the party. The result is there was a feeling of reunion, rather than rejuvenation. Had the audience been more diverse – ideologically, professionally and demographically – then the conference could have legitimately claimed to be a non-partisan event. As Andrew Potter wryly called out in his scathing column on the media’s treatment of the conference, the partisanship of the audience became overwhelmingly clear during Ignatieff’s closing speech. The speech to me got the tone of the event wrong. It’s campaign style, and the drumbeat standing ovations from the crowd, surely made the few non-partisans present uncomfortable.

In the end, when the conference planning was moved into the OLO, I think a conscious decision was made to play it safe. To not go for a “game-changer”, but rather an incremental step in the policy development process. With this goal in mind, the conference should be deemed a success. And as I said, the use of new media has established a new standard for Canadian policy conferences. In my opinion, however, by focusing on problems rather than solutions, by relying on usual suspect speakers, and by inviting a partisan audience, the conference limited its reach and its potential to transform the political narrative outside of the political bubble.

Cdn Politics

Oped in Toronto Star

Dave and I have a piece in the Star today on Liberal renewal. It builds off of our larger article on How the Left is Killing Progressive Politics in the Literary Review. I suppose it would also be appropriate to put my biases on the table – as many who read this site would know, I do policy work for Michael Ignatieff, and will continue to do so during this leadership campaign.

How about real Liberal renewal?

In the weeks since one of its worst ever electoral performances, the conversation within the Liberal Party of Canada has rightly turned to renewal. To date, the establishment consensus suggests two options: shift right and recapture the ideological “centre,” or unite the left and merge the votes of the Greens, NDP and Liberals.

Neither choice, however, represents renewal. Both are simply electoral tactics focused on the next election. Neither necessitates a rethinking of first principles, nor encourages reflection on how liberalism, and its agenda, must evolve to create a 21st century vision that will speak to Canadians.

Consequentially, both approaches are likely to alienate a new generation of activists, thinkers and policy-makers whose new ideas and energy are essential to transcending the country’s staid political debates.

Take for example our friends and colleagues. Confronted with parties whose politics, policies and priorities are perceived as out of touch and ineffective, many have simply opted out of organized politics. But many are deeply engaged. They start or work at non-governmental organizations, volunteer internationally, create social enterprises or advocate outside of organized politics. Among our peers, the progressive spirit is strong, but progressive politics is not.

To progressives searching for a political home a united left offers few new opportunities.

While acknowledging the left was instrumental in creating many of the social programs Canadians have come to trust – many of today’s emerging progressives see a left that is often loath to reform or rethink them in the face of globalization, the telecommunication revolution, and a changing citizenry. In the last election voters faced an ideological paradox. The more left the advocates, the more entrenched they were against innovation and reform, even when such reforms would serve progressive values.

Seen this way, the NDP’s vision is in many ways a conservative one – a vision of Canada locked in the 1960s or worse, the 1930s. This conservatism of the left – even if found under one tent – will not inspire forward looking progressives, or Canadians in general.

Nor will moving to the centre attract new people or inspire new ideas.

Centrism requires there to something inherently good in the position between two ideological poles. Rather than compromise between the conservatism of the left and the right, many of our peers want pragmatic policies and ideas based on a governing philosophy rather than political gamesmanship.

Take how Barack Obama has mobilized a new generation of progressives. He inspires not because he compromises between the left and right, but because he offers pragmatic policy solutions, unrestricted by ideology. Obama’s watershed speeches – “Ebenezer Baptist Church,” “Yes We Can” and “A More Perfect Union” – are powerful because they transcend the ideological divides of the past 40 years.

How then could the Liberal party attract new people and ideas? The first step is to understand that we are on the cusp of a neo-progressive revolution.

While traditional progressives promoted their values to smooth the transition from agrarian to industrial capitalism and to spread the latter’s benefits, a neo-progressive Liberal party should seek to manage the shift from the industrial to the knowledge economy. In short, to develop a New Deal for the 21st century.

This would mean, like their progressive forbearers identifying new political axes around which a new governing coalition – drawn from both the left and right – could be built.

These emerging political axes include open versus closed systems, evidence-based policy versus ideology, meritocratic governance versus patronage, open and fair markets versus isolationism, and emergent networks versus hierarchies. It is these political distinctions, not the old left versus right, that increasingly resonate among those we talk to.

Such a shift will not be easy for the Liberal party. Transformative politics requires a painful process of introspection and a willingness to let go of past battles. The Liberal party, however, continues to treat “renewal” as a side process. For example, after Paul Martin’s 2006 defeat party insiders chose 30 issues they felt were critical, and then a select group wrote reports on each. Little technology was used, neither the membership nor the public was engaged, and almost none of the reports were released to the public.

The result: Few new people were attracted to the party, almost no rigorous debates were stimulated and Liberals were unable to articulate a new progressive agenda.

This recent history offers one critical lesson. If Liberals are serious about renewal, the process can’t just be about the tactics for winning the next election, but about making progressive politics relevant to the 21st century.

Cdn Politics, US Politics

Après ca, le déluge

Before Obama’s 2004 convention speech, I remember reading a story about the black guy from Chicago who was going to run for the Senate. I can’t remember where, or even what the piece said, but I do clearly remember taking notice. He sounded different, and intriguing.

At his convention speech, he first sounded the themes that would resonate four years later. It appeared as if he was also wise. And an exceptional orator. After he won his Senate seat, I heard the story of how he approached Samantha Power, and how she took leave to join his Senate office. Seemed he was a good judge of character.

I then listened to his first book, and his second, both read by him. His voice was oddly soothing, his prose at times beautiful. He was a good writer. And had a vision. By this time it was clear he was going to run for president, and against a Clinton none-the-less. Audacious. What’s more, he was going to be the first serious post-boomer candidate. He was now going to speak to my generation – in their voice, to their issues, using their tools, in their language.

And he did. Not surprisingly, he captured the support of a new political generation. He did this not simply because he was a great orator, but because of what he said. It’s difficult to explain how refreshing it was to listen to his speech on race. To a generation that had grown up in the age of political spin, Clinton and Bush embodied it, the manner in which Obama responded to this moment of political turmoil was more telling than any. He treated the public as adults. He responded with intelligence and emotion, and in a way that quite literally overcame one of the deepest divides in American history – that of race.

This was more than mere words. It reflected his temperament. And it is this above all else that I find remarkable about him. He is calm and deliberative, thoughtful and humble. Traits rarely found in politics.

During his campaign, I began thinking about what this phenomena meant for Canada. Many of the political realities driving Obama’s rise are not analogous, and many of the calls for a Canadian Obama were as demagogic as they were ironic (given that most doing the calling had spent the better part of the past 8 years smugly mocking the US). But one thing is comparable – the fate of the left, and the arc of progressive politics over the past century.

The reality in both America and Canada, is that many aspects of the Left, and the politics which have come to embody it, simply do not resonate with my generation. Obama, more than anything else, was to me the first to give voice to a new emerging political spectrum. One not governed by left versus right, but by a different governing philosophy, free from the confines of ideology and identity politics. With Dave, I wrote an article on this, and we are working on a book.

So all of this makes my reaction to his win all the more odd. The night was emotional, certainly. The weight and responsibility, the fear even, that was clear in his acceptance speech – alone on that long stage – demonstrated the admirable and inspiring marks of his temperament. But the most striking moment for me was after the speech, when he was standing behind the glass wall, looking out at the crowd. He wore the burden that he would from that moment bare. As has been said of Lincoln, Obama perhaps more than anyone since, at that moment, truly knew the melancholy loneliness of the Presidency that awaited him. And like Lincoln, he will likely be a great president. If Lincoln’s challenge was to unite America, Obama’s will surely be to tackle global divisions. A burden if there ever was one.

What I didn’t feel on the night of the election, however, was overjoyed. In fact I was put off by much of the emotion on display. Much of it felt superficial. Like liberals who had righteously mocked Bush, for so long and with such vigor, staking claim to their superiority, much of the election night melodrama felt more in the service of solidifying an identity. But Obama is supposed to move us beyond identity politics. Similarly, those warning of the dangers of inflated expectations, never themselves really understood what people, beyond the fanatics, saw in him.

And so on the day after, I was deflated. Partly I suppose because I was not a part of it. I am not American. I do not believe that America can save the world. I do not believe in American exceptionalism, even if I believe Obama is himself exceptional, and I do. Partly also because it reflected on the relative smallness of the only politics in which I can honestly participate. I will never vote for a great American president. Nor do I think Canadian politics should aspire to Presidential greatness. Some of these are selfish, obviously, but politics always to a degree is. Some of it is a questioning of how to make a impact, and how not to get caught up in the ephemeral sweep of day to day politiquing.

With these thoughts in mind, I haven’t talked very much about the election in a couple of days. I have been reading a lot of commentary though. A couple pieces are of note.

First, I have been re-reading Ta-Nehisi Coates’ blog posts from the past couple of weeks. In a way, this was the first election where blogs as a journalistic medium have been truly on display. And one of the ways in which they can be so powerful, is that they allow an honest author’s emotion to come through. Voice is able to literally sit on the surface of their writing. There is perhaps no other writer who better demonstrates this than Ta-Nehisi.

Amongst all the spin and the trite political commentary, his writing has been grounding. And re-reading his at times poetic posts, has reminded me what it is about politics that can, at times, be so thoroughly engaging. I would single out a post or two, but I don’t think that does him justice. His blog needs to read, as all good blogs should, like a flowing narrative. This is the very power of the medium.

If you want a wonderful few hours – start about a month ago, and read his posts and watch the videos. It will help differentiate your honest emotions about this election from the guilty superficial ones, the ones reinforcing your identity politics, the ones you convince yourself you should feel, rather than those you truly do.

Second, and I think I can stop on this, is a paragraph by Ezra Klein which I found particularly striking in its clarity. Ezra is a fierce partisan whom one would expect to be rejoicing in a historic win. Instead, he cautions:

My basic emotion is relief. The skill of an Obama administration has yet to be proven. The structure of our government will prove a more able opponent of change than John McCain. But for the first time in years, I have the basic sense that it’s going to be okay. Not great, necessarily. And certainly not perfect. But okay. The country will be led by decent, competent people who fret over the right things and employ the tools of the state for recognizable ends. They may not fully succeed. But then, maybe they will. At the least, they will try. And if they fail in their most ambitious goals, maybe they will simply make things somewhat better. After the constant anxiety and uncertainty of the last eight years, maybe that’s enough.

And if I really think about it, coming out of my bizarre post election mood, that is how I also feel. That things will be good. That the right combination of intentions, skill and temperament are now in place, and that we can begin to have an honest discussion about how to address some real challenges. We can do so out of the confines of rigid ideology and all the bluster that come with it. We can start seeing America for what it really is, rather than the caricature that has emerged. And we can do so recognizing that the world is now very different than the place in which many became stuck in their worldviews, in their certainties, in their divisions. Above all, I suppose, this is a relief.

Cdn Politics, US Politics

Neo-Progressivism: The Next Political Cycle?

Several months ago the Literary Review of Canada put a request for articles about the rise of Obama and what it means for politics in general and in Canada specifically. Mine and Dave’s proposal was lucky to be chosen, and is the lead essay in this month’s edition of the LRC.

The essay explores how the Left has been killing progressive politics. Those on the right have always been clear about their disdain for progressivism and their desire to rollback its success and dismantle its institutions. On the left however, a equally strong conservatism has emerged. Fearful that any debate, or worse reform, will threaten successes of the past century many progressives have become anti-change. It is a more subtle conservatism, but it has helped create a political environment within the left and centre left defined by silence and stagnation.

But change is afoot. A new generation are challenging old assumptions and exploring ways of adapting the progressive agenda to the 21st century. It is these same people – the neo-progressives – that helped Obama to the top of the democratic party. This new generation of progressives can, and will, similarly reshape Canadian politics.

The full article is available here.

Cdn Politics, Global Issues

Oped in Embassy Magazine

Dave and I have the following piece in this week’s Embassy. It is in part based on research I have done on the US bombing of Cambodia with Ben Kiernan, an overview of which can be read in this Walrus article.

Embassy, May 7th, 2008
Afghanistan Another Iraq? Try Another Cambodia

Of the many complexities to emerge from our mission in Afghanistan, one is particularly troublesome. Almost one-third of the Taliban recently interviewed by a Canadian newspaper claimed that at least one family member had died in aerial bombings in recent years, and many described themselves as fighting to defend Afghan villagers from air strikes by foreign troops.

This should come as no surprise. Last year, the UN reported that over 1,500 civilian were killed in Afghanistan. In the first half 2007, this casualty rate had increased by 50 per cent. The NGO community and NATO remain at odds over who is accountable for a majority of these deaths.

What is indisputable, however, is that air sorties have increased dramatically. According to the Center for Strategic and International Studies, sorties doubled from 6,495 in 2004 to 12,775 in 2007. More critically, aircraft today are 30 times more likely to drop their payloads than in 2004.

Civilian deaths are a moral tragedy. Equally importantly, however, they represent a critical strategic blunder. It has long been known that civilian casualties benefit insurgencies, who recruit fighters with emotional pleas. While an airstrike in a village may kill a senior Taliban, even a single civilian casualty can turn the community against the coalition for a generation.

This presents military commanders with an immensely challenging dilemma: Accept greater casualties in a media environment where any and all are scrutinized, or use counterproductive tactics that will weaken the enemy in the moment, but strengthen him over the long term.

While the choice is almost impossibly difficult, it is not new. Surprisingly, the case of U.S. air strikes in Cambodia offers a chilling parallel.

Between 1964 and 1973, the U.S. dropped over 2.7 million tonnes of munitions on Cambodia, making it potentially the most bombed country in history.

While the scale is shocking, the strategic costs were devastating. Over the course of the bombing period, the Khmer Rouge insurgency grew from an impotent force of 5,000 rural fighters to an army of over 200,000, capable of defeating a U.S.-backed government.

Recent research has shown a direct connection between casualties caused by the bombings and the rise of the insurgency.

Because Lon Nol, Cambodia’s president at the time, supported the U.S. air war, the bombing of Cambodian villages and the significant civilian casualties it caused provided ideal recruitment rhetoric for the insurgent Khmer Rouge.

As civilian casualties grew, the Khmer Rouge shifted their rhetoric from that of a Maoist agrarian revolution to anti-imperialist populism.

This change in strategy achieved stunning results. As one survivor explained:

“Every time after there had been bombing, they would take the people to see the craters…. Terrified and half-crazy, the people were ready to believe what they were told…. It was because of their dissatisfaction with the bombing that they kept on co-operating with the Khmer Rouge, joining up with the Khmer Rouge, sending their children off to go with them.”

Compare this to what one Taliban fighter explained to a Globe and Mail researcher: “The non-Muslims are unjust and have killed our people and children by bombing them, and that’s why I started jihad against them. They have killed hundreds of our people, and that’s why I want to fight against them.”

The coalition risks repeating the same mistakes, and like the Khmer Rouge 30 years ago, the Taliban are capitalizing on its misguided tactics.

Amazingly, in Cambodia, American administration knew of the strategic costs of the bombing. The CIA’s Directorate of Operations reported during the war that the Khmer Rouge were “using damage caused by B-52 strikes as the main theme of their propaganda.” Yet blinded by grandeurs of military might, the sorties continued.

The Khmer Rouge forced the U.S. out of Phnom Penh, took over the country, and the rest is a tragic history.

We know our tactics in Afghanistan have a similar effect. Civilian casualties drive a generation into the hands of an insurgency we are there to oppose.

Initially Canada deployed without Leopard tanks and CF-18s with the goal of prioritizing personal engagement and precision over brute military might. Today, however, our allies’ tactics—and increasingly our own—do not adequately reflect strategic costs incurred by civilian causalities. In addition, Canada has not allied itself with other NATO members—particularly the British—to reign in the coalition’s counterproductive use of aerial bombings.

Cambodia offers a powerful example of aerial warfare run amok. What is Canada doing to ensure we don’t relive the failures of the past?

Cdn Politics, Global Issues

Toronto Star Oped: 2011 is a date, not a goal

Patrick Travers and I have an oped, here, and below, in the Star today on the recent NATO summit in Bucharest.


2011 is a date, not a goal

Reinforcements are welcome but do not address Manley’s sweeping critique
Apr 05, 2008
Patrick Travers
Taylor Owen

Prime Minister Stephen Harper told reporters in Bucharest that the French troop commitment to Afghanistan represents a “significant and historic re-engagement.” The truth is somewhat less dramatic, particularly when measured against the Manley panel’s comprehensive and wide-ranging recommendations.

Certainly, the injection of additional resources is good news. It frees American forces to offer more assistance and provides a badly needed show of unity within NATO. But these relatively minor additional resources must be seen in context.

Although allied support will shore up flagging Canadian capacity, the overall mission remains under-resourced. The contributions pledged in Bucharest do not meet the 10,000 troops demanded by ISAF commander Gen. Daniel McNeill before the summit. Even counting the Afghan National Army, there are still fewer forces available than the minimum levels experts identify as necessary for successful peacebuilding operations.

More importantly, the government’s success in Bucharest was largely due to a careful reframing of the Manley report. While the panel did emphasize the need for additional troops and helicopter support, it also went much further.

The critiques were sweeping: too many civilian casualties, incoherent counter-narcotics policies, widespread corruption in Afghan institutions, insufficient diplomatic effort, failure to communicate the mission to Canadians, poor interdepartmental co-ordination, and a lack of civilian participation and oversight. Our strategy, as well as our capacity, is flawed.

The report emphasized this point explicitly when it identified “harmful shortcomings in the NATO/ISAF counter-insurgency campaign” caused by “inadequate co-ordination between military and civilian programs for security, stabilization, reconstruction and development.” The conclusion that “these and other deficiencies reflect serious failures of strategic direction” could hardly be clearer.

Luckily, the panel provided a blueprint. Its recommendations were rooted in the principles of “3D” or “whole-of-government” peacebuilding. Three successive governments have claimed that they are implementing this new approach to rebuilding failed states, but reality has yet to match the rhetoric. In particular, four challenges still need to be addressed.

First, co-ordinated and comprehensive policy-making demands exceptional clarity. Diplomats, humanitarians and defence experts may view the same issues in strikingly different terms. If we are asking them to work together, as we are, we must provide them with clear goals. For Canada in Afghanistan, this has been lacking from the start and the decision to extend the current mission does little to solve the problem.

Second, much of the Canadian debate about our role in Afghanistan has omitted the international context. We are a modest contributor in a 35-member coalition. Success or failure in Afghanistan depends crucially on the actions of our allies. In this sense, it is hard to see the benefit of an arbitrary extension to 2011. If the international effort to stabilize Afghanistan lasts longer, as it almost certainly will, then we need to be clear about what both Canada and ISAF expects to accomplish in next three years. Our commitment has to be viewed in the context of the larger strategy.

Third, peacebuilding demands balance. According to the Manley panel, “for best effect, all three components of the strategy – military, diplomatic and development – need to reinforce each other.”

Not only has this not happened, but the degree of integration has also been difficult to determine from outside observation. The government has consistently failed to provide the verifiable information, clear benchmarks, and concrete timelines to necessary to judge Canada’s mission accurately.

Fourth, strategy begins in Ottawa. Harper has taken steps to improve co-ordination between the departments contributing to the mission, but old habits remain. The Manley report underscored that new and more creative solutions are needed for this bureaucratic deadlock.

Other countries, such as the U.K., may provide an example. They have explored alternate means of encouraging departments to work together when managing complex peacebuilding missions. This may be a rare instance of bureaucratic turf battles mattering deeply both for Canadians and for the success of the mission.

Neither the political compromise that extended our involvement in Afghanistan nor recent developments in Bucharest address these challenges. If we are to avoid finding ourselves in the same position in 2011, a more comprehensive re-engagement is needed.

The Manley panel should have sparked a full and informed public discussion of these issues. Instead, the opportunity was largely lost in political manoeuvring. It is past time we had that debate. Otherwise, we are condemning Canada’s mission to reliving its past.

Patrick Travers is a doctoral student at the University of Oxford. Taylor Owen is a Trudeau Scholar at the University of Oxford and an Action Canada Fellow.

Cdn Politics, US Politics

Nafta Bruhaha

Who knew Canada would come into play in the Dem primary? A couple of quick points on the Obama-NAFTA-Cnd embassy “chat”:

1. First, and most importantly, it would not be AT ALL surprising if the story that Harper’s Chief of Staff, Ian Brodie, was the source of the leak turned out to be true. Think about it, what is the worst possible outcome of the US election for a boring middle age conservative white guy trying to edge out a majority government in Canada? Hint – chances are pretty good he’s not rooting for the young/charismatic/inspirational/progressive black guy.

2. Harper has issued this stock statement. As Delacourt points out though, this isn’t likely to halt Clinton’s attacks….remember the “terrorist came from Canada” ruse she was so hesitant to disavow?

3. The irony of all of this is that Obama’s NAFTA position is actually both sophisticated and pretty pro-canadian. He wants the environmental and labour regulation side agreements to be formalized into the treaty. Something progressive Canadians have long pushed for. He is also, not inconsequentially, against Clinton’s silly and completely impractical “time out on trade” idea, and lets not even get into her sectoral protectionism…

4. Re. Canada-US relations…Drezner is just about bang on.

Cdn Politics, Uncategorized

Brad Davis

There have been many wonderful things said about Brad in the days since his tragic death. From my limited perspective, all are understated, even in their deepest praise. I wouldn’t have presumed to add anything. But at the Ignatieff group drinks after his funeral yesterday, so many of the feelings that I have had about Brad’s illness and death came rushing back. In part, because it was a reunion of many of the people that Brad brought together over the past couple of years. This aspect of what he was to a number of us, a hub of a network, someone who literally created a group of friends and colleagues, has perhaps not been fully emphasized.

This is partly because it is not widely known. In fact, while senior people in the Ignatieff campaign probably knew in theory what Brad was up to, I am not sure even they know the depths of the relationships and networks that Brad established in his effort to build a policy platform.

As Michael so powerfully said yesterday, when a friend dies, one has to grasp on to memories of reality. For me, I got to know Brad though the Ignatieff campaign. I went to a pre-leadership announcement meet and greet in Vancouver, spoke to a staffer, said I was interested in getting involved, and a week or so later, got an email from Brad. From then on, I was lucky enough to witness the policy machine that Brad established. I soon learned that I was one of dozens of young people, scattered around the world, most of which had never before been involved in politics, which Brad had brought together in an attempt to change the way policy was developed and in many ways, the way politics more generally was done.

Instead of relying on the old-guard of the Liberal party, or the ideas well versed in Laurier club circles, Brad broke ranks, and put together working groups of experts, or aspiring experts as the case may be, on a wide range of policy areas. The goal was solely to come up with the best possible policy positions. Brad had become the hub of an international policy network of people who wanted to be engaged in what was so clearly a new way of doing politics.

Many in these groups had never met him in person, but all became familiar with his daily policy requests. “What should our policy be on Afghanistan”, Brad would ask, in an email received at 2am. “We need a full brief in two weeks, consult the best people, here are some contacts from Michael’s network.” For a foreign policy student, who has long idealized Ignatieff, it doesn’t get any better than this.

After six months of this sort of communication, and getting to know dozens of people, mostly not particularly partisan, all young, all wanting to see Michael as leader, primarily in order to change the nature of political debate in our country, we started to all meet in person in the lead-up to the convention. Here policy debates morphed into political rapid response teams, and finally, for the mad week of the convention, under the guidance of Brad, we had an emotional, intense, and moving experience, fighting together for something everyone really believed in. A rare thing, that bonded the policy network into a network of friends.

We now work together on a wide range of projects, some more political than others. We all have Brad to thank. He was the one who saw that there was a desire out there for people to get involved, and he tapped into it. In so doing, he created a network of people who are all now engaged in Canada in a way they didn’t know they would. Many of us have moved, or plan to move home. We all now see that there is a way of engaging in the often distasteful world of politics. This is because of Brad.

Small and insignificant in the big picture, I just wanted to add this particular aspect of Brad’s recent life that I intimately experienced. I haven’t known Brad for long, and the vast majority of our interaction has been over policy and politics, but I am enormously thankful for what he has done for me, and grateful for what I think he has done for the country.

Cdn Politics, Global Issues

Oped in Toronto Star: From Kandahar to Carnegie

David and I have the piece below in this morning’s Toronto Star. It tries to link the supply side of the opium problem (our failing counter narcotics initiatives in Afghanistan), to our failure to address the domestic demand side of the issue. Closing Vancouver’s Insite supervised injection site would be a major step backwards, both in our strategic capability to address the challenges posed by poppy production in Afghanistan, and in our moral responsibility to help our own citizens in need. The opium problem begins at home, and harm reduction is a key component of this fight.

Failed strategy connects Afghan fields, city streets

In the coming months, under the leadership of the former U.S. ambassador to Colombia, U.S. private contractors will likely attempt to fumigate poppies in Afghanistan. Around the same time, the Canadian government will decide whether to shut down the Insite supervised injection site in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside.

The two policies are inextricably linked and unambiguously bad.

In April, the United States appointed William Wood, nicknamed “Chemical Bill,” its new ambassador to Afghanistan. In his previous post, Wood championed and oversaw the fumigation of large swaths of the Colombian countryside. The result? For every 67 acres sprayed, only one acre of coca was eradicated. Moreover, production increased by 36 per cent. In addition, the spraying negatively impacted legitimate crops, contaminated water supplies and increased respiratory infections among the exposed populations.

Wood is in Kabul for a single reason – to execute a similar plan in Afghanistan. Poppy production, once held in check by the Taliban government, is exploding – up 60 per cent in 2006. Poppies yield 10 times the value of wheat, so it is unsurprising that about 10 per cent of an otherwise impoverished Afghan population partakes in the illicit poppy harvest. It earns them upwards of $3 billion (U.S.) a year, or roughly 65 per cent of Afghan GDP.

The short-term economic costs and long-term development and health impacts of fumigation will be borne by those whose livelihoods are both directly and indirectly connected to poppy cultivation. Spraying could easily cause public opinion to turn against the Karzai administration and NATO forces, further compromising the mission and increasing the danger to Canadian soldiers.

Given the increased risks this policy poses to both our soldiers and the overall mission, the government’s silence is unconscionable. Others have not been so quiet. British Prime Minister Gordon Brown recently observed that there is little international support for fumigation. He announced an alternative policy to wean farmers off of opium, one that includes an ambitious plan to top up payments for legal crops, such as wheat.

Such policies, however, are only part of a long-term project. Success will require a holistic view, one that understands the connections between the consumption of illicit drugs in places like Vancouver and their cultivation in Afghanistan. Specifically, this means tackling the demand for opiates. Although 90 per cent of world heroin comes from Afghanistan, the vast majority is consumed in western countries. Blaming Afghan farmers for the problem is as hypocritical as it is ineffective.

Reducing the cultivation of poppies in Afghanistan begins not on the streets of Kandahar, but on the streets of Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside.

Fortunately, such policies exist. Insite, Vancouver’s supervised injection site, offers a real first step toward reducing poppy cultivation. This small storefront provides drug users with a sanitary and safe place to inject in the presence of registered nurses. The result: 21 peer-reviewed studies document how Insite diminishes public drug use, reduces the spread of HIV and increases the number of users who enter detox programs.

But Insite does more than get drug use off the street. It is a portal into the health-care system for addicts who are too often shut out. Drug users who visit Insite are an astounding 33 per cent more likely to enlist in a detoxification program. Indeed, Insite has added a second facility, called Onsite, that capitalizes on this success by allowing drug users to immediately access detox and drug treatment services on demand.

Sadly, the Harper government remains ideologically opposed to Insite. It is unclear if the federal government possesses the legal authority to close the site but there is significant concern it will attempt to do so within six months.

The Conservatives should be looking to scale Insite nationally, not contemplating its closing. A national network of injection sites could dramatically reduce heroin use in Canada by channelling more drug users into drug treatment programs. Diminishing the demand for heroin would in turn devalue the poppies from which it is derived. Changing this economic equation is both safer and more effective than fumigation if the goal is shifting Afghan production from poppies to legal crops. Admittedly, Canada’s share of the global consumption of heroin is relatively small, but our success could provide a powerful and effective example to the international community.

To many Canadians, Afghanistan is a world away. But the lives of drug users outside Vancouver’s Carnegie Centre and those of our soldiers in Kandahar are bound together – linked by the international opium trade. What we do in Afghanistan shapes events in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, and vice versa. Canada’s soldiers, drug users and ordinary citizens deserve a government that recognizes this reality.

Cdn Politics, Global Issues

Quick thoughts on ‘The Unexpected War’

Janice Stein and Eugene Lang have written a great book on the first 5 years of the Canadian engagement in Afghanistan. I won’t review it in full, but a few of quick points.

First, this is a very effective model for a foreign policy book.  Lang was on the inside, so we are privy to the story as it evolved in Cabinet.  Stein is a great writer, and brings an analytic clarity to the work that complements the policy wonk writing of Lang.  She also has the academic and intellectual credibility that clearly led to impressive access to candid interviews with the real players in this story.

Second, this book both praises and damns Hillier.  The story of how he romanced Graham and Martin is important, and clearly demonstrates his intelligence and revolutionary spirit within the military bureaucracy.  He is the Canadian Rumsfeld.  However, there is little doubt that he oversold the military’s capability to do both Afghanistan and Darfur – a clear precondition for Martin’s support of going to Kandahar.  What’s more, he also was not honest on his intentions to stay longer than a year, advocating for an expanded role before we even deployed.   One is left wondering whether the PMO’s case for Andrew Leslie as CDS instead of Hillier was prescient.

Third, the military hysteria around US relations is a knee jerk reaction that undermines Canadian foreign policy. It has got to change.  Time and time again, Stein and Lang detail the exaggerated warnings by the military of the consequences of not aligning with US policy.  Iraq and BMD were supposedly death nails in US-Canada relations.  Neither proved to be even remotely the case.  There is a reason that the DM positions controlling our military are split.  Civilian military leadership may not be good at procurement, but they do know politics.  Related, this point seems particularly important now that we have a government that is more sympathetic to the types of arguments the military were making regarding streamlining with the US military.

Fourth, the story Stein and Lang tell of the federal bureaucracy, and their clear inability/unwillingness to implement any real form of integration is proof that if we are serious about 3D, or any such integrated peacebuilding model, then a laissez-faire approach is wholly insufficient.  The British model of incentivised funding structures, in their case Conflict Pools, is going to have to be considered much more seriously than it has to date.

Fifth, the military component of our mission is engaging in tactics that Stein and Lang believe fundamentally undermine the mission.  What’s more, the balance between the three D’s of the mission are so disproportionately weighted to the military that the impact and effectiveness other the two are significantly marginalized.  I agree with both points, as Patrick Travers and I argued here. Stein and Lang, however, fail to draw out the consequences of such a critique. What are the implications of this argument?  Seems to me that the logical conclusion to their damning assessment is to either address the unbalance and the tactics that threaten the mission, or get out and stop pretending that we are doing something we are not.

Or, maybe these critiques don’t actually matter. Perhaps integrated peacebuilding is just a rhetorical tool to sell counterinsurgency to a country which wants to peacekeep. In which case, as you were…