Two Lectures to the Unifor-McMaster University Labour Studies Program, Oct-Nov, 2014
I became interested in foreign policy in 1999, when Canada joined the 3-month long air war on the former Yugoslavia. What interested me was that Canada had abandoned what I, at the time, believed was its traditional peace-keeping role for a role of waging war in cooperation with the United States and other NATO powers against a country that posed no threat whatever to Canada, or its allies. I followed the war very closely and considered the reasons politicians and people in the media said the war needed to be fought, and the reasons didn’t make a lot of sense to me.
So I started to look at critical analyses of the reasons that had been offered for why the war was being waged, and those analyses demonstrated in a very convincing way that the narrative that had been offered to justify the war was full of holes. The rationale just didn’t add up. And it became very easy to show that the war couldn’t possibly be about the things that politicians and the media said it was about.
It turns out that the justifications for Canadian foreign policy, and US foreign policy, and the foreign policy of other Western countries, is pretty easy to discredit, if you pay close attention to it.
But most people don’t, for a variety of very understandable reasons.
First, foreign policy is about things that happen in remote corners of the world with which we have no direct experience, so it’s difficult to get an intuitive grasp based on personal experience of what’s going on, on the ground.
Secondly, the major source of information about foreign policy for most people is the news media. And the practice of the news media is to report what high government and state officials have to say in the House of Commons, or the White House, or the State Department, or the Pentagon, or the Department of National Defence. In other words, the news media pass along the official view, or what people in government and the state would like to public to understand, which may not be the whole truth or even close to it.
Which means that when it comes to foreign affairs you’re seeing matters through a lens provided by the government or the state in a way you wouldn’t do on domestic affairs, because you have personal experience with the matters that domestic affairs is about, on jobs policy, on taxation, on policies respecting unions, on social programs, and so on, but usually not on matters of foreign policy.
Take for example, the federal government proposal to reduce employer EI premiums on the grounds that this will create jobs. You can use your own experience to evaluate whether this claim is convincing. But when someone tells you about what’s happening half way around the world, in a country you’ve never visited, and perhaps have never really heard about until now, and then they put forward a proposal about what must be done in that country, you have no personal experience on which to draw to make any kind of evaluation of whether what you’re being told is true or reasonable or against your interests or compatible with them. (I mean if domestic policy can be against your interests, and it often is, well, maybe foreign policy can be against your interests too. But how do you determine whether it is or not?)
Well, if you have the time—and unfortunately few of us do—but if you have the time to pay close attention to what’s going on, you’ll find that what you’re told about foreign policy often doesn’t add up and doesn’t make a lot of sense.
And some people think that just means that politicians are dumb and are always screwing up. But my argument is that foreign policy makes sense once you know the motivations behind it. But if you don’t know them, it doesn’t make sense at all.
Let me give you an example. Canada is currently contributing CF-18s and special forces to the war against ISIS in Iraq. And Canadian politicians and the news media and others will tell you that Canada’s contribution to this operation needs no justification, that this is the right thing to do, that ISIS is a repellent, head-chopping, backward, anti-woman, sectarian, anti-democratic, medieval organization that needs to be eradicated—and ISIS is indeed all of these things. But there’s a country in the Middle East that Canada supports strongly, as do our allies, that’s very much like ISIS: Saudi Arabia. There’s not a lot of discussion about Saudi Arabia. But Saudi Arabia is a head-chopping, backward, anti-woman, sectarian, anti-democratic, medieval country ruled over by despotic crowned dictators, who have violently put down Arab Spring pro-democracy uprisings in their own country, and in neighbouring Bahrain (where they sent tanks and troops to quell demonstrators calling for a constitutional monarchy). And Saudi Arabia is one of the principal sources of funding for ISIS. Indeed, the ideology of ISIS is based on the official ideology of Saudi Arabia, known as Wahhabism—which is a very severe 18th century fundamentalist version of Islam.
It happens that while ISIS was cutting off the heads of US and British journalists—which got a lot of play in the media—Saudi Arabia was beheading dozens of criminals, most convicted of non-violent offenses, including one for sorcery.
So when Canadian politicians and media people tell you that Canada is sending CF-18s to Iraq because we don’t like violent fundamentalist Sunni Muslims who are anti-woman and anti-Shia and cut off people’s heads and want to impose religious rule, we’re being sold a bill of goods, for if this were true we would be bombing Saudi Arabia too, rather than embracing Saudi Arabia as a great ally in the Middle East.
There are other examples.
Canada sent CF-18s to participate in an air war against the Libyan government of Muamar Gaddafi. Libya, today, is a failed state. It is completely and utterly in chaos. Rather than making conditions better in Libya, the NATO intervention made conditions immeasurably worse. The people who led the rebellion against Gaddafi were violent fundamentalist Sunni Muslims who wanted to overthrow a secular nationalist government, which was considered offensive to their ideology, and replace it with a religious state. In other words, they wanted to do in Libya what ISIS is trying to do in Iraq and Syria–and we supported them.
The Libyan rebels, were, as ISIS is, connected to al-Qaeda. A reporter at The Ottawa Citizen, David Pugliese, wrote extensively on how the rebel groups in Libya were jihadists connected to al-Qaeda, and about how Canadian pilots bombing Libyan government positions joked that they were al-Qaeda’s air force—that Canadian CF-18s helped provide air cover to al-Qaeda to overthrow a secular nationalist government in Tripoli.
We can put this all aside, and say, “Let’s forget that the rebels in Libya were violent al-Qaeda-linked Jihadists and assume that they were people who simply wanted democracy, rather than fundamentalist Islamic rule in Libya that resembles the kind of backward, religious rule that prevails in Saudi Arabia.
And let’s do the same in Syria. Let’s assume, incorrectly, but let’s assume for the sake of argument that the rebellion in Syria was led by people who simply wanted democracy.
And just to digress for a second on Syria.
The official narrative these days is that the rebellion against the government of Bashar al-Assad in Syria began as a “largely” peaceful pro-democracy uprising but was quickly hijacked by violent jihadists. Why is it that the origins of the uprising are invariably described as “largely” peaceful, rather than just “peaceful”? The answer is because the first demonstrations were not peaceful. They may have been “largely” peaceful in the sense that most people didn’t engage in violence, but there was still a fair amount of violence. The first significant demonstration happened in the city of Dara. Demonstrators shot and killed police officers, and set fire to a court house and burned down a branch of Syria Tel, the state owned telephone company. Well, you can call that “largely” peaceful if you want, but it was clear from the beginning that the uprising involved more than a little violence, and it’s not surprising that the Syrian state used violent methods in response, as any state would, including Canada. What would happen here at home if demonstrators killed police officers, and set fire to buildings? There would be a very vigorous reaction from the government.
And no one denies that the rebellion in Syria is now led—no matter what its origins were–by ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra, or the al Nusra front, both of which are al-Qaeda. The Nusra front is the official al-Qaeda franchise in Syria. ISIS grew out of the official al-Qaeda franchise in Iraq, which was known as AQI or al-Qaeda in Iraq. The so-called moderate rebels don’t exist, and all of the rebel groups, are Islamists, and by Islamists I mean people who seek to replace a secular government with a fundamentalist Islamic government, following the credo the Koran is our constitution. These groups abhor democracy because, in their view, man-made laws shouldn’t supersede the laws of God.
But even if the moderate rebels did exist, no one denies that the rebellion is led by the violent, immoderate, head-chopping, women-hating rebels of al-Qaeda, and that the battle that rages in Syria, and has been raging for three years, is a battle very much like the battle that occurred in Libya: a battle between the violent Sunni Muslim fundamentalists of al-Qaeda, on the one hand, and a secular nationalist government, on the other.
Now, despite the fact that the Syrian government is locked in a battle with al-Qaeda, and not with pro-democracy forces, Canada continues to be against the Syrian government. Why is that? I mean, it’s one thing to say, “You’re repressing a pro-democracy uprising, and our foreign policy is based on promoting democracy (except in Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Egypt), so we’re against you.” But on what grounds can Canada now say it is against Syria, since the battle is not about democracy (if it ever was) but is about two different visions of government: a secular non-sectarian one, represented by the Assad government, and a sectarian Sunni Islamist one, represented by al-Qaeda? So if Canada is against al-Qaeda, and the battle in Syria isn’t over democracy, and the Syrian government is battling al-Qaeda, why is Canada against the Syrian government?
The other thing about Syria is that the rebels have perpetrated all manner of barbarities, from beheadings, to suicide bombings in elementary school playgrounds to kill children belonging to a sect that al-Qaeda rebels consider to be heretical, to ethnic cleansing, to eviscerations.
And no one in Ottawa or the news media seems to care much about this, or to pay particular attention to it. It is as if the government wants Assad gone, and they don’t particularly care who drives him away, so long as he is driven way, so they don’t want to draw attention to how brutal the Syrian rebels are—the rebels who, by the way, are being funded by, and armed by, and coordinated by, the intelligence services of our allies. But when the same rebels behead an American journalist and a British journalist, and it just so happens at a time when ISIS is threatening to capture strategic parts of Iraq, suddenly they’re an intolerable threat and something has to be done about them.
So, Canadian foreign policy is riddled with inconsistencies. It doesn’t add up.
Ottawa said it was against Gaddafi and Assad because both leaders were dictators, and because they used violence against their own people. But at the same time, we didn’t support uprisings for democracy in Bahrain, and we didn’t support uprisings for democracy in Saudi Arabia, even though these countries have authoritarian, non-democratic governments that brutally cracked down on pro-democracy demonstrators. Why do we support rebels in Libya and Syria but not in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia?
Consider Egypt. Canada supports Egypt’s government. Egypt is effectively a military dictatorship. The current head of state, president Sisi, led a military coup against the legitimately elected government of Mohammed Morsi. When Morsi’s supporters protested against the ouster of the president, Sisi violently cracked down. He killed over a thousand. He wounded many more. He jailed tens of thousands. Human Rights Watch said that Sisi was committing crimes against humanity. When Gaddafi used the coercive powers of the state to quell a violent uprising against him, we sent bombers to destroy his military, but when Sisi uses the coercive powers of the state to quell demonstrators demanding the reversal of a coup d’état and the restoration of democracy, the United States sends him $1.3 billion in military aid, with Canada’s blessing. And no one in the Canadian government has said that Sisi must step down, or that he has lost legitimacy, or that he’s a brutal dictator. However, all these charges were levelled against Gaddafi and all these charges are levelled against Assad.
So, you have to ask, how is it that Egypt can be led by a military dictator, who staged a coup against a legitimately elected president, who used violence against his people, who committed crimes against humanity according to Human Rights Watch, and yet continues to be supported by the Canadian government? If Canadian foreign policy seeks to promote democracy abroad—and if you visit the website of the Department of Foreign Affairs you’ll see it does— this couldn’t possibly be.
Here’s another example. Bahrain.
Bahrain is an oil-rich hereditary monarchy in the Persian Gulf. The monarch, King Khalifa, is the head of state. He appoints the head of government and the cabinet. The government isn’t elected; it’s appointed. The head of government is the king’s uncle. He has been prime minister for the last 43 years–the longest serving prime minister in the world. All of the deputy first ministers are relatives, all named Khalifa. So Bahrain, an ally of Canada, is not a democracy, but a family dictatorship.
Ottawa complains that North Korea and Syria are family dictatorships. The Assads have ruled Syria since 1971. The current president, Bashar al-Assad, took over from his father, Hafiz al-Assad. Kims have ruled North Korea since the late 1940s. Kim Il Sung founded the state. His son Kim Jong il succeeded him. Now the founder’s grandson, Kim Jong un, is the head of state.
But Ottawa doesn’t complain that the Khalifas have been heads of state and heads of government since Bahrain achieved independence over four decades ago. Somehow Bahrain’s family dictatorship is okay, but North Korea’s and Syria’s are not. Why is that?
Of Arab Spring countries, Bahrain had the largest protests per capita. 400,000 people took to the streets in one demonstration alone out of a total population of 1.3 million. The demonstrators denounced Bahrain as a police state. They demanded a transition to a more democratic constitutional monarchy, where the government would be elected by the people, rather than appointed by the king. You would think that that was something that Canada would support. But when the protests were violently suppressed Canada stood by and did nothing. And the crackdown was done with the help of the troops and tanks of Saudi Arabia, another family dictatorship. So how is it that Canadian foreign policy is not against the Khalifa family dictatorship in Bahrain or the House of Saud dictatorship in Saudi Arabia but is against dictatorships in Syria and Libya?
So when I said it’s possible to poke holes in Canadian foreign policy and show that it’s inconsistent and that it can’t be based on the considerations Ottawa says it’s based on (like promoting democracy), it was examples like these I was thinking of.
There are a number of foreign policy critics, and very good ones, whose method is based on uncovering the contradictions in the foreign policy of various countries to show that foreign policy is not driven by the kinds of considerations that politicians and state officials and people in the media say it is driven by.
But if you can show that foreign policy is not about what the official narrative says it’s about, what, then, is it about? What is the answer to the question: Why is Ottawa for the rebels in Libya and Syria but not in Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and Egypt?
You need a theory about foreign policy to make sense of the contradictions and to understand what the true aims of Canadian foreign policy are, and what the forces are that shape it.
Everyone carries theories around in their heads about foreign policy whether they know it or not.
For example, you may carry in your head the theory that Canada is traditionally a peace-keeping country, but that it has been diverted from its traditional peace-keeping policy by the neo-conservatism of Stephen Harper, and that if the Conservatives are defeated in the next election that Canada will return to its traditional peace-keeping role.
You might carry in your head the theory that the foreign policy of Canada and its Western allies is motivated by lofty, praiseworthy goals, like promoting democracy, and preventing genocide, and protecting vulnerable populations.
Or you may believe that foreign policy is formulated as a response to a world that is teeming with multiple threats, and that a myriad of groups and countries seek to harm us.
So we all have theories about foreign policy even though we might not recognize them as theories but think of them simply as common sense.
What I’m going to do is present a theory that is very different from the one that politicians and state officials and the news media present.
The theory comes in two parts. The first is a consideration of who makes foreign policy in Canada, who shapes it, and who influences it. The second is an inference. The inference is that whoever makes foreign policy, whoever shapes it, whoever influences it, does so to promote a benefit for themselves.
So the view is that foreign policy is formulated to defend and promote the interests of someone or some group or some class, and to understand who that is, we have to understand who exercises the greatest influence over foreign policy in Canada.
If the theory is any good, we should be able to use it to predict which foreign governments Canada is against, and which governments it supports. We should be able to use it to explain the contradictions we’ve just seen in Canadian foreign policy. It should tell us why Ottawa supports the rebels in Syria and Libya but not Egypt, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia
So who makes foreign policy? Well, it’s made in Ottawa by politicians. At least, politicians sign off on foreign policy (although it may be formulated somewhere else.) But is it made in a vacuum? Do politicians get together with the officials from the Department of Foreign Affairs, and put together a policy without reference to anyone else in the country, or without reference to very powerful allies, like the United States? Or do they receive inputs from various groups? And are the interests of certain groups more likely to be considered than the interests of others? Are there some groups that have money and resources to get their point of view across in Ottawa to a degree that others can’t?
Foreign policy can be broken down into two components: What benefits we want to derive from our relationships with other countries. And how we’re going to derive those benefits.
So, let’s think of the benefits.
When politicians and bureaucrats are formulating foreign policy in Ottawa, they could say: the benefits we want to achieve in our relationships with foreign countries are these:
• We want more job security for our workers at home.
• We want better pay and better working conditions for our workers at home.
• We want full-employment.
• We want to expand the amount of free or nearly free public services, like transportation, healthcare, child care, and education.
• We want policies that help trade unions rather than undermine them.
These are our goals. These are our priorities. Now, what do we need to do in the way we manage our affairs with foreign countries to make this happen?
Is that what’s going on in Ottawa?
Or is it that when politicians and bureaucrats get together to make foreign policy they say something like this? The benefits we want to achieve in our relationships with foreign countries are these:
• We want to increase the number of Canadian firms doing business in overseas markets.
• We want to deepen commercial engagement in Africa, Latin America and Asia.
• We want to promote and protect investment opportunities overseas for Canadian investors and business owners.
• We want to ratify the Canada-EU Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement, as an investors’ bill of rights to penalize governments that interfere with the profitability of Canadian investments.
So, which of these two scenarios do you think is closer to what actually goes on in Ottawa?
Well, if you want to find out, visit the web site of the Department of Foreign Affairs, and look at the department’s list of priorities. You’ll discover that the department’s priorities are exactly the same as the ones I just presented in the second scenario.
Laid out on the web site are these priorities.
• Increase the number of Canadian firms doing business in overseas markets.
• Deepen commercial engagement in Africa, Latin America and Asia.
• Focus on investment promotion and protection.
• Ratify the Canada-EU Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement.
Clearly, these are priorities aimed at providing a benefit to a certain sector of Canadian society. Not average Canadians. Not workers. Not organized labor. Not unions. But shareholders and bankers and business owners and people with money to invest. In short, corporate Canada.
So how is it that the views of corporate Canada are so strongly represented in the list of priorities of the Department of Foreign Affairs and that there’s nothing on the list that directly concerns the interests of workers?
I mean we have elections in this country. We have politicians who, in theory, are accountable to the electorate. So, shouldn’t it be the case that the policies of the government, including its foreign policy, reflect the interests of the majority, that is the interest of workers, and not the interests of a small section of the population made up of shareholders, and corporate CEOs, and bankers, and business owners?
Well, there’s a long tradition in parts of sociology and political science going back to the 17th century that says that whoever owns the economy has the greatest influence on the government and the policies of the state, no matter what the form of political arrangement, whether it’s a monarchy, a military dictatorship, a fascist regime, or a democracy. Whoever owns the economy, by virtue of their control of vast wealth and resources, can play an overwhelming role in the political life of a society.
There is a study recently published in the academic journal Perspectives in Politics by two US political scientists that the Nobel Prize winning economist Paul Krugman has publicized. The authors looked at over 1,700 policy issues. And their conclusion was this: “Economic elites and organized groups representing business interests have substantial impacts on government policy, while average citizens and mass-based interest groups have little or no independent influence.” In other words, the corporate community has extraordinary influence over public policy and average citizens and mass-based groups have virtually none.
Well, this invites the question: How is this the case? How is it that in a democracy a small section of the society can have an outsize influence on the politics of the society, virtually monopolizing public policy?
There has been work done over the last half century by some sociologists and political scientists to explain how it is that the corporate community has extraordinary influence while average citizens and mass-based groups have virtually none.
One way is through lobbying. The corporate community has a vast network of lobbyists representing its point of view to government. No other sector of Canadian society lobbies the government to the degree the corporate community does. Large corporations have entire departments dedicated to pressuring government officials to accommodate their interests. Industries have lobbyists to represent the common interest of their industry. And there are lobby groups representing the corporate community as a whole, constantly pressing government to adopt policies that serve the interests of the corporate elite.
What’s more, people who occupy high-level positions in government and the state are very likely to have come from high-level positions in the corporate community.
Let’s take, for example, the New York investment bank Goldman Sachs. Goldman Sachs is sometimes called Government Sachs, and it’s called Government Sachs because so many of its executives have held very important positions in the state, not only in the United States, but in Canada and Europe and beyond. The former governor of the Bank of Canada, David Carney, now head of the Bank of England, had a 13 year career at Goldman Sachs, rising to the managing director level, before he joined the Department of Finance and later the Bank of Canada. Robert Rubin and Henry Paulson, recent US Secretaries of the Treasury, were both Goldman Sachs executives. Mario Draghi, President of the European Central Bank, was a Goldman Sachs executive. And there are many other Goldman Sachs alumni who have held less visible, but still very important positions in the state in the US, in Canada, in Europe and elsewhere. And that’s just one company.
In Canada, former high-level executives from scores of major enterprises hold senior positions in the bureaucracy. For example, Harper’s former chief of staff Nigel Wright was managing director of the investment firm Onex, and held positions on various corporate boards, before joining the prime minister’s office.
This is known as the revolving door. People who hold high-level positions in the corporate community move into high-level positions in public service, later return to the corporate community, only to come back into public service again and again.
Related to this is the practice of the corporate community offering very lucrative senior executive positions or appointments to boards of directors to politicians when their careers in politics come to an end. Politicians know that if they play their cards right and indulge the corporate community while they’re in office that there’s a reward waiting for them when they end their political careers.
The corporate community also funds and directs think-tanks, whose purpose it is to bring together university professors and journalists and corporate executives to formulate foreign policy, which is then recommended to the government. Foreign policy think-tanks in Canada include the CD Howe Institute, the Fraser Institute, the Canadian Defence and Foreign Affairs Institute, the Asia-Pacific Foundation and the Canadian International Council. These think-tanks are often understood by the public to be neutral, non-partisan expert policy organizations, but what they really are, are corporate funded, corporate directed, advocacy organizations whose purpose is to persuade government to adopt foreign policy positions which serve the interests of the corporate community. They present themselves as neutral, and non-partisan, and they may be non-partisan in the party-political sense, but they’re not non-partisan with respect to the interests of the corporate community. They are corporate Canada’s front organizations.
They also act as advocacy organizations to shape public opinion to support policies that favor the corporate community.
I can illustrate with a US example. The Institute for the Study of War, or ISW, is a US foreign policy think tank. The ISW is funded by the arms industry. Its sponsors are Raytheon, General Dynamics, Northrop Grumman, DynCorp. These are the largest arms manufacturers in the world. The think-tank is headed by a man named Jack Keane. Jack Keane is a retired US general. He sits on the boards of MetLife, the giant insurance company, and the weapons industry giant, General Dynamics.
The ISW plays two roles: a policy formation role and a public opinion shaping role. As part of its policy formation role, it creates policy recommendations for the government that favor a robust military and its frequent use. As part of its public opinion shaping role, it runs advocacy campaigns to support a muscular military. Keane plays a lead role in shaping public opinion to support policies that will benefit the corporate sponsors of his think tank. In July and August, he appeared on CNN at least nine times as a military analyst to promote US military intervention in Iraq and Syria. CNN didn’t disclose that Keane is on the board of General Dynamics or that his think tank is sponsored by a who’s who of Pentagon suppliers.
That’s just one example of how the corporate community uses think-tanks to provide so called impartial experts to the mass media to frame how viewers and readers ought to interpret events in order to persuade the public to back policies that favor corporate community interests.
Another way in which the corporate elite influences public opinion to support policies of interest to it in the state is through the mass media. The corporate elite own the mass media. And it’s not unreasonable to expect—and nor is it conspiracy theory-mongering to say—that the mass media, by virtue of the fact that they’re owned by the corporate elite, reflect the interests and the point of view of the corporate elite.
This is hardly a controversial observation. A newspaper that was owned by labor unions would promote positions that are compatible with the interests of labor, and no one would think that was odd. A news network that was owned by environmentalists would take a dim view of building pipelines through ecologically sensitive habitat, and no one would bat an eye at that. So why would anyone think that news media owned by wealthy business owners would somehow not reflect the point of view of wealthy business owners? News media have a certain point of view. And the point of view is compatible with the interests of their owners.
So, to summarize: Economic elites and organized groups representing business interests have substantial impacts on government policy, while average citizens and mass-based interest groups have little or no independent influence.
The outsize influence of the corporate community on public policy happens through a number of mechanisms.
• Through direct lobbying of the government, which corporate Canada does to a degree that no other group in Canada can even come close to matching.
• Through the revolving door, which sees people in top positions in the corporate community rotating in and out of government and the bureaucracy.
• Through the promise of lucrative jobs in the corporate sector to politicians who work to promote the interests of the corporate community while in government.
• Through think-tanks to formulate foreign policy on behalf of the corporate community.
• And through the corporate community’s shaping of public opinion to support policies of interest to it through its advocacy organizations and its ownership of the mass media.
So what would we expect a foreign policy to look like, if the corporate elite exercises an overwhelming influence on policies of interest to it in the state?
Well, it’s going to look like the set of priorities the Department of Foreign Affairs has set for itself. It’s going to be interested in protecting and promoting profit-making opportunities abroad for Canadian investors and business owners.
So let’s go back to our original question. If Canada’s foreign policy is aimed at protecting and promoting the profit-making interests of Canadian investors and business owners, which countries will Canada be against, and which countries will it be for?
Well, it follows that the countries that Canada will be for, are countries that eagerly offer opportunities for corporate Canada to generate profits, and that the country’s record on democracy and respect for human rights will be less important, or completely unimportant, compared to whether the country is a source of profits for Canadian business owners and investors.
At the same time, Canada will be against countries that deny or limit opportunities for corporate Canada to generate profits. But it’s pretty unlikely that the government is going to say we’re sending CF-18s to bomb this or that country because we don’t like their foreign investment climate. Instead, the government will manufacture some reason the public can support, like protecting vulnerable populations or overthrowing a dictator or combating terrorism or eradicating head-choppers.
So, if we find countries that have failed to build business climates that are friendly to foreign investment, we’ll probably find countries that the Canadian government doesn’t like. And if we find countries that welcome Canadian foreign investment, we’ll probably find countries that the Canadian government likes a lot, even if the countries aren’t democracies, and even if they don’t respect human rights.
In Lecture I I talked about how the business community has a number of ways of dominating public policy, and that the research literature shows that the business community has been very successful in using these mechanisms to get its way in the public policy arena.
So we can make a guess, or arrive at a hypothesis, that says, foreign policy in Canada is probably based on the interests of investors and the business community, since big business and the groups that represent it seem to have a large influence on the government. And following from this, that Canadian foreign policy isn’t about promoting democracy and respect for human rights but promoting and protecting the overseas profit-making interests of Canadian businesses and investors.
If this is true, then what we should find if we look closely enough is that the foreign governments that Canada supports are the ones that create profit-making opportunities for Canadian investors and businesses, while the foreign governments that Ottawa opposes are the ones that deny or limit profit-making opportunities for Canadians looking for investment opportunities around the world.
In other words, what we should find is that what matters is not democracy and respect for human rights, but how good a country’s business and investment climate is.
One measure of the degree to which countries maintain business and investment climates to support the profit-making interests of Canada’s corporate elite is provided by the Index of Economic Freedom. This is an index that is complied annually by the Wall Street Journal and the Heritage Foundation (which is a foundation founded by the Coors family.) The Wall Street Journal, of course, is the chief newspaper of investors in the Western world.
The index ranks countries based on how much profit they allow foreign investors to make, or how many opportunities they provide to people looking for investment opportunities around the world.
Here are the countries that are at the very bottom of the Heritage Foundation/ Wall Street Journal index—the countries that the business and investment communities like the least.
North Korea. The problem with North Korea, in the view of the business and investor community, is state control of the economy and centralized planning, which means all of the economy is in the public sector, and there are virtually no investment opportunities for Canadian investors and business owners.
Zimbabwe. The problem with Zimbabwe is the government’s policy of indigenization, which means, placing ownership of the country’s land and mineral resources in the hands of the indigenous African population. If you want to extract minerals in Zimbabwe, that is, if you want to invest in mining, you’re going to have to take on a domestic partner. Zimbabwe is also not against expropriating land and mineral resources to serve public policy goals. And the goals are to redress historical wrongs related to the colonization of the country by European settlers.
British settlers came to Zimbabwe when it was a British colony called Rhodesia and drove the indigenous people from their land and onto the worst land and denied them any say in the politics of their country. When the indigenous people fought back and won political independence and won the right to vote, they said, “It’s time to get the land back that was stolen from us.”
That raised the question of who was going to compensate the settlers of European origin whose land was going to be redistributed to the indigenous population from which it was originally taken. The Zimbabweans said the British should compensate the settlers because, after all, it was the British who were responsible for the theft of the indigenous people’s land in the first place. When the British said, “No, we’re not going to do that,” the Zimbabweans said, “Fine, we’ll take it back without compensation—which they did, earning them condemnation by governments in the West, all dominated by business interests, who said the idea that any government anywhere should expropriate income-producing property without compensation is intolerable, and that Zimbabwe must be punished severely to send a warning to other governments that anyone who goes down the same path will be punished severely.
So, Zimbabwe says, “It’s time to put the economy of the country in the hands of Zimbabweans.” Investors don’t like that. Their attitude is: All for us and as little as possible for you, ideally, only enough to keep you alive to do the labor we need to make our investments pay off.
Cuba. The problem with Cuba is that only a very small part of it is open to foreign business interests. Virtually all of the economy is in the public sector.
Eritrea. Eritrea is a small country, sometimes known as the Cuba of Africa. It is disliked by the business and investor community because it has a strict command economy in which most private investment has been eliminated and where the economy is almost wholly within the public sector.
Venezuela. The problem with Venezuela, according to the corporate and investor community, is its readiness to impose high taxation rates on businesses and to expropriate land and other private holdings to serve public policy goals. If you’re a business and the Venezuelan government doesn’t like what you’re doing, there’s a big risk they’ll expropriate you.
Myanmar. Myanmar is a country that had a mostly state-owned economy. Western powers, including Canada, imposed sanctions on Myanmar and isolated it diplomatically, on grounds that it was not democratic, though they seemed to have no trouble with other non-democratic, authoritarian states, like Saudi Arabia, for example (which I’ve already talked about.) Then suddenly, about the time Muamar Gaddafi was overthrown in Libya, Myanmar decided it wanted to open its economy to foreign investment and exports, and quickly Western powers began to lift sanctions and restore diplomatic relations. If you’ve been following the news, you’ll know that Obama was in Myanmar recently, where there’s some concern that Myanmar isn’t transitioning quickly enough to a democracy, but all the same Obama was pretty tolerant. And he was tolerant because Myanmar is moving in the right direction economically, providing investment and business opportunities for corporate American, and that’s what really matters to Washington, not whether Myanmar becomes a democracy.
Libya under Gaddafi. Libya’s problem was that Gaddafi was practicing what the US State Department called resource nationalism, which was imposing conditions on foreign investment that said if you’re going to invest here you have to provide jobs and other advantages to Libyans. Gaddafi said a lot of Westerners have made a lot of money from our oil, and now it’s our turn to derive some benefit from it. Western oil companies didn’t like that because giving more to the Libyans meant less for them. So, if you could get rid of Gaddafi, and replace him with someone who wasn’t so insistent on Libyans sharing in the benefits of Libya’s oil wealth, so much the better for oil companies.
Finally, Iran. The problem with Iran, from the point of view of the corporate elite, is that it prohibits foreign investment in major sectors of its economy. Banking is off limits to foreign investment. The telecom industry is out of bounds. You can’t invest in transportation. Oil and gas are treated as strategic industries. And there are restrictions placed on investment in other sectors.
So, these are among the bottom 10 countries on the Heritage Foundation/Wall Street Journal index.
They are, to a country, communist, socialist, or economically nationalist, and it’s not surprising that the business and investor community should dislike them. They offer few, or no, opportunities for foreign investment and when they do offer opportunities, they insist on taking a cut of the profits.
Significantly, governments that are perennially targets of Western regime change efforts rank at or near the bottom of the index. All of the countries I talked about are countries that Western powers, including Canada, would like to change the governments in.
Syria scores fairly low on the index as well. Its economy is, to some extent socialist, and the Assad government is economically nationalist. It pursues many of the same policies these other countries pursue.
Efforts to change governments in these countries are invariably attributed to some praiseworthy or necessary goal, like promoting democracy or protecting vulnerable populations or combating state sponsorship of terrorism.
For example, the official reason why we participated in the air war on Libya was to prevent Gaddafi from slaughtering his people.
That’s a pretty effective way to get the public behind you. All you have to say is that some leader is planning to slaughter his people, and if you say, “How do you know?” the answer is: “Do you want to stand by and let a genocide happen?”
The same method was used by the United States to build public support for the invasion of Iraq in 2003. Washington said Iraq had banned weapons. When asked what proof they had, some in the Bush administration said, “We might not know for sure, but do you want to wait and find out when a mushroom cloud rises in the sky?”
So, justifying the use of force on the grounds that there is some necessary or praiseworthy reason for it is often used. It is also used in domestic policy.
The political scientist Ralph Miliband once wrote that “On innumerable occasions, and in all capitalist countries, governments have played a decisive role in defeating strikes, often through the coercive power of the state and the use of naked violence, done so in the name of the national interest, law and order, constitutional government or protection of the public rather than simply to support employers.”
And that’s what happens when Western countries like Canada intervene in the affairs of other countries. The intervention is always portrayed as some noble, humanitarian or necessary cause, and never what it actually is, which is intervening to protect or promote the interests of investors and business owners.
Which is why all the noble, and humanitarian, and necessary causes seem to be in countries that are the least receptive to foreign investment.
It’s also why none of these noble, humanitarian, and necessary causes are in countries where governments welcome foreign investment and bend over backwards to make sure business owners make as much profit as they possibly can.
Not one of the top 10 corporate-elite-friendly countries on the Heritage Foundation/Wall Street Journal index is a target of Western regime change. These are: Hong Kong; Singapore; Australia; Switzerland; New Zealand; Canada; Chile; Mauritius; Ireland; and Denmark.
None of the countries in the top half are targets of Western regime change efforts.
How could this be?
If regime change were linked to human rights concerns and not unfavourable investment and business climates, you might expect to find regime change targets scattered throughout the rankings, rather than bunched up at the bottom and none at the top.
But that doesn’t happen.
All the countries that Western powers, including Canada, are against happen to be at the bottom of the index in terms of the attractiveness of their investment and business climates.
Now, you could object to my reasoning. You could say that countries with favourable investment and business climates are also democracies that respect human rights, which is why the worst offenders on both counts are found at the bottom of the list.
However, this couldn’t possibly be true.
And here’s why:
The United State is ranked as the 12th most attractive country in the world in terms of its business and investment climate, but it has an atrocious human rights record. Think about it. There’s Guantanamo Bay, which is territory in Cuba that the United States has no legitimate right to, but which it holds by force, on which is located a prison to hold people indefinitely, some of whom were simply resisting a foreign invasion and occupation of their country; there was the scandal at the US-run Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq where prisoners were abused; there’s the practice of water-boarding prisoners, which is torture; there is extrajudicial assassination, where targets are assassinated on suspicion, and US citizens living abroad are now considered legitimate targets if they’re seen to be at war with the United States; there’s the massive spying of the US government on its own citizens, that was revealed by Edward Snowden, and which Canada is equally guilty of, all of which makes East Germany, which was supposed to be the model of the police state, look quite tame; there are restrictions in the United States on travel to Cuba; the United States has the largest per capita prison population in the world; and the treatment of minority populations in the United States, especially blacks, is deplorable.
The United States keeps up a fiction that it’s a model of tolerance and respect for human rights as a way of asserting its self-claimed moral authority around the world to justify its military interventions, but it has no moral authority to assert.
So it can’t be true that countries that have attractive business and investment climates are the ones that have the greatest respect for human rights. They have the greatest respect for the rights of investors, and business owners, and employers, but are indifferent to the rights of anyone else.
How about Saudi Arabia?
Saudi Arabia’s woman-hating, head-chopping, anti-democratic, crowned dictatorship, which ranks in the top half of the Heritage Foundation/Wall Street Journal index, is without question the least free country in the world in terms of political and civil liberties. So, a good business and investment climate does not go hand in hand with respect for human rights.
Let’s talk about Bahrain. Bahrain’s foreign investment climate is ranked next to the United States. Regionally, Bahrain is top ranked in North Africa and West Asia, while under Gaddafi, Libya was ranked 173 of 179 countries—close to last in the world, and dead last in regional rankings.
Bahrain, which is home to the US 5th Fleet, is an investor’s dream. If you’ve got money to invest, that’s where you might want to put it.
The government won’t expropriate you, that’s guaranteed, but in Libya, there was always a chance that Gaddafi would, especially if he thought that you weren’t doing enough to help the Libyan economy grow and work for Libyans.
If you wanted to invest in Libya under Gaddafi, the first thing you had to do was convince the government that the investment was good for Libya. Then you had to take on certain obligations as the price of being allowed to invest in the country. And finally you had to find Libyan partners to take on a 35 percent stake in your enterprise.
Contrast that with Bahrain. In Bahrain there’s no screening of foreign investment, there are no obligations on investors to help Bahrain’s economy develop, and you don’t have to take on local partners.
Gaddafi barred investors from taking all of their profits out of the country. He said, you have to reinvest some of your profits here in Libya.
But in Bahrain things are quite different. You can take all of your profits out the country. The government doesn’t ask that you reinvest in the economy.
If you wanted to export goods to Libya, you might have been in trouble, because Gaddafi used a number of barriers and subsidies to help Libyan firms compete and grow and develop.
Also, if you were a business operating in Libya you were subject to tax rates of up to 40 percent. By contrast, Bahrain has no corporate tax, expect on oil companies.
So, if you’re an investor, scouring the globe for opportunities, Bahrain looks like a pretty interesting place. Libya under Gaddafi looked like a nightmare to investors (though not so much of a nightmare to the people who were living there.)
A year after Gaddafi was overthrown, The Wall Street Journal reported that oil companies had been livid with the oil deals the Gaddafi government had been negotiating with them. They said, Gaddafi was demanding too much and they “hoped regime change in Libya…would bring relief in some of the tough terms they had agreed to in partnership deals” with Libya’s national oil company.
Wikileaks obtained a US State Department cable that warned that those “who dominate Libya’s political and economic leadership are pursuing increasingly nationalistic policies in the energy sector.”
And the cable went on to say that there was “growing evidence of Libyan resource nationalism”—which means trying to use Libya’s natural resources for the benefit of Libyans, rather than giving it all away to Western oil companies.
The cable then criticized Gaddafi for a speech he made where he said: “Oil companies are controlled by foreigners who have made millions from them. Now, Libyans must take their place to profit from this money.”
So, Gaddafi was challenging the attitude of investors of “all for us and as little as possible for you” by demanding “some for us and less for you.” And that attitude was intolerable to Western governments—not surprising, since as we’ve seen, Western government are dominated by business and investor interests.
The oil companies, it turned out, where also very unhappy with what they called Gaddafi’s efforts to “‘Libyanize’ the economy,” that is, to let Libyans have a greater stake in their own economy. So Gaddafi said, if you want to operate in Libya, you have to hire Libyan managers, you have to hire Libyan finance people, you have to hire Libyan human resources directors, and so on.
Well, that was just too much for the oil companies, who wanted to put their own people in Libya. They couldn’t have Gaddafi telling them who to hire.
Here’s what The New York Times said: “Colonel Gaddafi proved to be a problematic partner for international oil companies.”
Why? Because he said, “If you want to operate here, you have to contribute to our economy. You have to hire Libyans. You have to re-invest in the country. You can’t just suck up all our oil wealth, take the profits out of the country, and leave us with nothing but a hole in the ground.”
But over in Bahrain, the crowned dictator and his family sing a different tune. They say, “Hey, take it all. We don’t care. Just leave enough for us to live in our grand palaces, and protect us from revolts by our own people.”
Funny, isn’t it, that Gaddafi, who was trying to make deals with foreign investors to develop his own country and create jobs for his own people has been presented in the media and by politicians as a clown and a monster, while the family dictatorship of Bahrain which allows foreign firms to vacuum up as much of Bahrain’s oil wealth as possible with no obligation to help develop the economy, get invited to royal weddings in London, and when they crush pro-democracy demonstrations, the media and politicians say next to nothing.
The double-standard we’ve practiced in bombing Libya but not Bahrain, shows that the stated reasons for the Libyan intervention were a sham. We were in on the campaign to get rid of Gaddafi because he was making life a little less profitable for oil companies, with all of his demands that if they were going to get rich on Libya’s oil then maybe they should give something back to Libyans in the way of jobs and reinvestment.
If we were to define Canadian foreign policy the definition would be this: The foreign policy of Canada is not motivated by the promotion of democracy and respect for human rights. It is not aimed at securing a benefit for the majority of Canadians. It doesn’t care one iota whether foreign governments are killing their own people. Instead, the aim of Canadian foreign policy is to work with the United States and its NATO allies to promote and protect foreign investment opportunities for investors and major corporations.
If that’s what Canadian foreign policy is—if it’s all about helping investors and business owners make money in foreign markets—how does it hurt Canadian workers, if indeed, it hurts Canadians workers at all? I mean, what’s wrong with helping investors and business owners make money? Does that hurt workers?
Well, the first thing I would say is that foreign policy has nothing to do with helping workers or looking out for their interests.
In Lecture I, I asked, when politicians and bureaucrats sit down in Ottawa to formulate the country’s foreign policy do they ask:
• How can we structure our foreign policy to get more job security for our workers at home?
• How can we structure our foreign policy to get better pay and working conditions for our workers at home?
• How can we structure our foreign policy to create full-employment?
• How can we structure our foreign policy to help trade unions?
No, of course not. They ask: How can we structure our foreign policy to help the business and investor community which lobbies us daily, which gives us lucrative jobs when we finish our political careers, whose high ranking members are working with us in key policy decision-making roles, who own the mass media and can shape public opinion to turn the public against us?
They don’t care about our interests.
In fact, Canadian foreign policy is hostile to all the goals we would hope that Canadian foreign policy would be about.
Take, for example, the idea of safeguarding our physical safety against external threat. That should be the role of the military: self-defence. I mean, we have an army and a navy and an air force to protect us from invasion. Or at least, that’s what they’re supposed to do.
But we sent CF-18s to bomb Libya. Was Libya a threat to Canada? Were Gaddafi’s forces going to invade us?
We sent CF-18s to bomb Yugoslavia in 1999. Was Yugoslavia a threat to Canada? Were Yugoslav forces going to invade us?
The answer to all these questions was no. But we sent warplanes anyway. That means we engaged in wars of aggression, not self-defence, but aggressions, which are illegal under international law.
You don’t hear much about international law, except when countries that aren’t our allies violate it. Obama yesterday said, in connection with the Ukraine, with jaw-dropping hypocrisy, that countries shouldn’t invade other countries, as if the United States and Britain didn’t invade Iraq—as if the United States, and Britain, and Canada, and other NATO countries, didn’t invade Afghanistan.
He also said that countries shouldn’t finance proxy groups to break countries apart, as if the United States isn’t financing and directing the Free Syrian Army as a proxy group to break up Syria.
So, what happens when you bomb someone else’s country, and there’s no legitimate reason for doing so?
Well, the woman who was the director general of Britain’s domestic intelligence agency at the time of the US-British invasion of Iraq in 2003, Lady Manningham-Buller, can tell you what happens.
In 2010, seven years after the United States and Britain invaded Iraq, she made a confession at an official inquiry.
She said Iraq was never a danger to Britain.
That may seem like a shock, but anyone who was paying attention at the time could see that Iraq was never a danger to Britain or the United States.
The UN’s chief weapons inspector, Scott Ritter, kept affirming that Iraq had destroyed its weapons of mass destruction.
And the evidence that Britain and the United States were putting forward to make the case that Iraq was concealing banned weapons was laughable. You may remember that the whole process was called “sexing up the evidence”—which is another way of saying “making it up”, which, if it wasn’t clear back then that it was made up, is undeniable today.
But even if Iraq did have banned weapons—and everyone knows now that they didn’t—even if they did, Iraq would still have posed absolutely no real threat to Britain.
Saddam Hussein wasn’t going to attack Britain. He didn’t have the means to. And he didn’t have any reason to either, unless he had a grand plan to commit suicide, which he didn’t.
When Manningham-Buller confessed that Iraq had posed no threat to Britain, she was simply stating the obvious that anyone who paid attention and had half a brain could have figured out for himself.
But then she said something interesting. She said that while Iraq had posed no danger, the invasion itself created a danger. The invasion itself created a danger, by radicalizing Iraqis, and Muslims living in surrounding countries who sympathized with the plight of the people who were being bombed, and shot at, and terrorized, and driven from their homes.
The invasion created an insurgency. The invasion radicalized Muslims and others who vowed to take revenge. The invasion created al-Qaeda in Iraq, which later became ISIS.
So if the British military’s function is to protect British citizens from threats, it had spectacularly failed, because its actions did the very opposite. They created a threat that had not previously existed. They created the threat of what the CIA called “blowback”—which is retaliation by people who are angry and upset by the harm you’ve done to them.
So by invading Iraq, rather than protecting the safety of the British people, the British military put the British people in harm’s way.
There’s a political scientist named Robert Pape, who began studying every case of suicide terrorism that has happened in the world since 1980.
Pape asked, what motivates suicide terrorism? A lot of people think it’s religious fanaticism, or specifically Muslim fanaticism. But Pape found that the leader in suicide terrorism in the world wasn’t fundamentalist Muslims, but the Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka. And the Tamil Tigers aren’t religious. They’re secular. They’re atheists. Their ideology is Marxism-Leninism.
So he said, well, it can’t be religious fanaticism that explains suicide terrorism, so what is it?
And what he found that is common to all the groups that practice suicide terrorism is this: They are all trying to drive foreign militaries from territory they consider to be their homeland.
It’s not that they’re religious fanatics. It’s just that they object to their country or homeland being occupied by a foreign military, and they choose suicide terrorism as a way of driving the foreign occupiers out.
The same is true of al-Qaeda and bin Laden. You don’t hear much about why al-Qaeda launched its terrorist attacks on 9/11, just silly things like, “they hate our freedoms.” Something that Pape pointed out is that terrorist attacks are not random acts of violence without an objective. They’re well-planned, well thought out, and they have a goal: And the goal is driving a foreign military from territory the terrorists consider their homeland.
When Manningham-Buller in Britain said the US-British occupation of Iraq created a threat by radicalizing Muslims, what she really meant was that some people would resort to terrorism as way to drive the British and the Americans out of territory they consider their home.
When you look at what bin Laden said about why he was using terrorism against the United States you see the same motivation that Pape talked about and that Manningham-Buller acknowledged when she said the invasion of Iraq created a threat by making people in Iraq very angry.
Just some background. The United States has military bases sprinkled throughout the Middle East. It had troops in Saudi Arabia, but later withdrew most of them, but still has a small military base in the Kingdom. But it has bases in Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, as well as in Turkey and Afghanistan. These are all countries in which most people are Muslim.
So here, in bin Laden’s words, are the reasons he launched a war of terrorism against the United States. He said, the reason why was because US forces were “occupying the lands of Islam…. plundering its riches, dictating to its rulers, humiliating its people, terrorising its neighbours, and turning its bases…into a spearhead through which to fight the neighbouring Muslim peoples.”
This fits with what Pape found about all groups that practice suicide terrorism. They’re saying, “Look, this is our country. Get out of it.” Bin Laden was saying, “Look, stop meddling in traditionally Muslim territory. Withdraw your forces. Stop propping up puppet governments in the region. ”
He said the same thing to the Soviets when the Soviets occupied Afghanistan in the 1980s. Back then, bin Laden was involved in the war to drive the Soviets out of territory the jihadists considered to be a Muslim homeland.
And back then, Washington thought he was a great guy and supported his struggle, calling him and other jihadists “freedom fighters” rather than “terrorists.” But of course, the United States only liked him so long as he was fighting against governments they were against, like the Soviet Union, or the Marxist-Leninist government in Afghanistan at the time.
This is the idea of the enemy of my enemy is my friend. But the moment bin Laden tried to drive the United States out of territory he considered a Muslim homeland he was transformed from a “freedom fighter” into an “evil terrorist.”
The same thing is happening in Syria. No one in Washington or Ottawa had much bad to say about ISIS when it was slaughtering its way across Syria, blowing up school children because they adhered to the wrong brand of Islam and decapitating captured Syrian soldiers, but the moment they threatened the Iraqi government, which Washington and Ottawa support, they became the epitome of evil, whereas in Syria, they weren’t evil at all…just rebels fighting a tyrant.
Violent Muslim fundamentalists have little appeal in the Arab and Muslim worlds. But they do support causes that have a broad appeal to Muslims and Arabs. They support the self-determination of the Palestinians. They demand the removal of unpopular US military bases from the region. They resist dictatorial regimes, like Egypt, and Saudi Arabia, and Bahrain that the United States and Canada support.
In other words, the Arab and Muslim worlds support the goals of the terrorists. They might not support their methods, but they support their goals.
Now, the British government, and the US government, and the Canadian government, know this. They know that people in the Arab and Muslim worlds don’t like our foreign policies. They know that people in the Arab and Muslim worlds are angry at us. And they know that some of these people are going to strike out against us in anger. But they keep doing the things that make these people angry, not because they’re stupid, but because the rewards to the business and investor community of Western powers controlling a very important oil-producing region are much greater than their concern for the safety of ordinary people in Canada.
CSIS has warned that we have been in the top five of al Qaeda targets for over a decade, and for three reasons: One, because Canada sent the military into Afghanistan. Two, because of Ottawa’s support for Israel against the Palestinians. And three, because we sent CF-18s to bomb ISIS positions in Iraq.
Now, we can analyze this the way Lady Manningham-Buller analyzed the British invasion of Iraq.
Did the Taliban government in Afghanistan pose a threat to Canada? No.
Do the Palestinians’ efforts to achieve self-determination pose a threat to Canada? No.
Did ISIS pose a threat to Canada before we joined the campaign to degrade and ultimately eliminate it? No.
So, none of these are threats.
Does invading Afghanistan, supporting the Israelis against the Palestinians, and bombing Iraq, create a threat by angering people in the Muslim and Arab worlds? Yes it does.
It creates the threat of terrorism.
I should mention something about terrorism. You’ll find no agreed upon definition of terrorism, and that’s because governments insist on using the term in shifting ways to suit their own political purposes. Bin Laden was transformed from a freedom fighter into a terrorist, not because he changed his methods, but because he changed his targets. Nelson Mandela, once labelled a terrorist, and once banned from entering the United States, was transformed from a terrorist into a heroic figure. So, there’s that old aphorism: One man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter. And in the United States and Canada one can be a terrorist and freedom fighter at different times, depending on political circumstances.
But we could say that terrorism is the use of violence against civilians for the purpose of inducing civilians to pressure their government to change the policies the terrorists object to.
So, for example, if a supporter of ISIS blows up an airplane in mid-air, the purpose is to frighten people so they start questioning whether their country’s contribution to the air war against ISIS is really worthwhile, and maybe that’s not something the country needs to be involved in.
I call that the terrorism of the weak, to distinguish it from the terrorism of the strong.
Now, it’s sometimes said that terrorism is the weapon of the weak. It’s what people who don’t have a military do.
A good illustration of this is provided in the movie The Battle for Algiers.
The Battle for Algiers is about the campaign of the Arabs of the French colony of Algeria to evict the French, their colonizers. The Arabs used some terrorist methods, like setting off bombs in cafes in French communities in Algeria to terrorize civilians.
In the movie a French journalist asks an Algerian liberation leader: “Don’t you think it’s a bit cowardly to use women’s baskets and handbags to carry explosives that kill so many people?”
And the leader, who would be called a terrorist, or freedom fighter, depending on your perspective, replies: “And doesn’t it seem to you even more cowardly to drop napalm bombs on defenceless villagers so that there are a thousand times more innocent victims? Of course, if we had your airplanes it would be a lot easier for us. Give us your bombs and you can have our baskets.”
So, the liberation leader was saying, “What option do we have? We have no option but to resort to terroristic methods.” Terrorism is the weapon of the weak.
But I object to that characterization, because it obscures the reality that terrorism is also a weapon of the strong.
Let’s go back to the definition of terrorism: the use of violence against civilians for the purpose of inducing civilians to pressure their government to change the policies the terrorists object to.
Do countries, like Canada or the United States, ever use violence against civilians in other countries for the purpose of inducing those civilians to pressure their governments to change the policies that Canada or the United States object to?
Well, listen to this.
In 1999, The Globe and Mail carried an interview with U.S. Air Force Lt. General Michael Short. At the time, Canada was involved, along with the United States and other NATO countries, in bombing Yugoslavia, which was done over a period of about 3 months.
What you should know about Yugoslavia is that it was a communist country. At the time of the bombing, it was coming apart, with various republics splitting off, or trying to split off. The government in power was the successor to the communist party, and still maintained a largely socialist economy, which was enough to make Western powers hate it. The West had delivered an ultimatum to the government, and in a secret appendix had demanded a transition to a market economy. The ultimatum was rejected, and NATO started bombing on the pretext that there was a genocide in progress that needed to be stopped in Kosovo, a part of Yugoslavia at the time.
At the end of the conflict forensic pathologists rushed to Kosovo, which was where a civil war had been going on between the government and a rebel army that had been trained, equipped and funded by Western powers. The forensic pathologists were ready to document the genocide that NATO said had been in progress and which, it said, had prompted it to intervene. But when they got there, they found no evidence of a genocide, and left in disgust, complaining that they had been duped, which they, and the rest of the world, had been.
So, as NATO forces, including Canadian CF-18s were dropping bombs on civilian targets, and killing innocent civilians, and destroying roads, power plants, bridges and factories, The Globe and Mail asked General Short to explain what the objectives of the bombing campaign were.
I’m going to quote what he said, and compare what he says, to the definition of terrorism of inducing civilians to pressure their government to change its policies.
“If you wake up in the morning and you have no power to your house and no gas to your stove and the bridge you take to work is down and will be lying in the Danube for the next 20 years, I think you begin to ask, ‘Hey, Slobo? (Slobo being a reference to the president at the time.) Hey Slobo. How much more of this do we have to withstand?’”
That is terrorism. It’s the use of violence against civilians to induce them to pressure their government. So terrorism is not only used by ISIS and al-Qaeda. It’s used by NATO powers, as well, including Canada.
Let me wrap up.
We don’t live in a democracy. It might be called a democracy. We might have elections. But the kind of society in which we live is more accurately described as a plutocracy—rule by wealthy business owners and investors.
Having a lot of money, I don’t need to tell you, is enormously advantageous. It will not only give you access to all the good things in life, it will also give you enormous political influence.
With money you can buy lobbyists to represent your interests in Ottawa, each day and every day.
With money you can buy politicians, with promises of lucrative jobs when they leave political life.
With control over major corporations, you can get your point of view heard in Ottawa whenever you want.
With money you can shape public opinion to support positions that favor your interests.
Governments have dual constituencies. They have their own populations but they also have the investor community, both here at home and abroad. If investors don’t like the government’s policies they can hurt the economy, by speculating against the currency or withdrawing or curtailing their investments or forcing massive layoffs—a kind of economic terrorism. Do what we say and nobody gets hurt.
The way to create a true democracy, in place of the current plutocracy, is to take power out of the hands of the wealthy elite, and bring the economy under public control, where it can be democratically managed. That way, we can make public policy, including foreign policy, work for us.
In a real democracy, when politicians and bureaucrats get together in Ottawa to formulate foreign policy, they’ll ask, how can we structure our foreign policy to get:
• More job security for our workers at home?
• Better pay and better working conditions for our workers at home?
• More free or nearly free public services, like transportation, healthcare, child care, and education?
• A Canada that is free from the threat of blowback?
Getting there won’t be easy. To paraphrase Edward Dowling, the two greatest obstacles to democracy are the widespread delusion among ordinary people that we have one and the fear among the rich that we might get one. But get one, we must.