Friday, August 30, 2013

The Syrian Conundrum and Britain

It was, I believe,  Napoleon who stated, "Never interrupt the enemy when he's making a mistake." I found this useful to keep in mind when assessing the ghastly situation in Syria.

That chemical weapons came into play is almost certain. Less certain, but not by much, is just who employed them, with a wide consensus pointing to the regime of Bashar al- Assad. The United States had indicated publicly that if this were the case, they would take action. Britain also indicated as much, to the chagrin of Russia, who supports Assad. (More on that later).

Canada has wisely stayed out of the whole mess, save for the provision of humanitarian aid.

A recent vote in the British House of Commons, however, went against the Prime Minister, David Cameron when it came to going to war with Syria. Shock all round. How could this happen? How could Cameron be seen letting his friend President Barack Obama, down in such a manner?

Well, in fact, he didn't. The MP's in the House of Commons did, something last seen in 1782*.  Looking at this result, and knowing full well that Cameron was not born yesterday, I suspect that this was an "engineered" vote. It makes little sense to lob a few missiles into Syria, and the downside in the Arab world would be considerable. I mean, trading priorities might even be affected.

A second factor, one that Russia has taken to its bearish heart, is that Muslims are killing Muslims. Putin, who would certainly know of Napoleon's dictum, is no doubt delighted, given the nasty situation Russia faces in Chechnya and the North Caucuses. Surely Cameron wouldn't be so ruthless as to stay out of Syria on purpose? Only a politician would ......but wait, he is a politician.

Barack Obama is, or was, a "community organizer" so will probably surge ahead and in some fashion  'organize" the Syrian community.

Good luck with that.

* In that year Parliament voted against continuing the war with the United States. ---Ed.                

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Close, But No Cigar

Egypt has been around for some 4000 years, and has had its share of ups and downs. The latest up and down occurred recently, and has been painful to watch.

Long-term misgovernance by privileged elites finally came under close scrutiny by citizens, aided and abetted by ubiquitous social media. This not only affected Egypt, but also Bahrain, Libya, Yemen, Syria and elsewhere. Our focus here, however, remains on Egypt.

A not so spontaneous gathering in the main area of Cairo, Tahir Square, caught the world's attention. One thing led to another -- a full description of events would really require a large book -- and the leader, Hosni Mubarak, was ousted, and sent to jail. His possessing some $70 billion didn't help his cause with Egyptians, about 40% of whom live on less than two dollars a day.

An election followed, and Muhammed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood was elected with some 52% of the vote. He had promised to be inclusive, and to appoint representatives from all aspects of Egyptian society to government positions, be those representatives Coptic Christians, the army, other Muslim sects, and secularists. In effect, he appeared to recognize that it was important to acknowledge the importance of those in the 48% who had not voted for him.

All of Egypt held their breath.

Alas, it was not to be. As the title of this piece states, "Close, but no cigar."

Morsi drew exclusively from his colleagues in the Muslim Brotherhood to fill government positions, and packed a constitutional committee with Islamists. He stood by while hatred between Christians and Muslims grew, and more and more seems to have morphed into something little different than the previous dictator. The only difference, perhaps, was Morsi more and more emphasizing a fundamentalist Islam.

Morsi, however, had miscalculated -- the army was having none of this -- and Morsi found himself arrested. Egypt (once again) erupted in protest, and all that can be said at this point is that Egyptians came close to achieving the original aims first proclaimed in Tahir Square. But we are not playing horseshoes here -- close doesn't count.

More appropriately, close doesn't count when tossing a hand grenade either. But it can be dangerous.

Friday, August 16, 2013

Beauty and the Beast

Some readers have let me know that references to my friends and colleagues have disappeared. There is some truth in this. Being ill has a tendency to focus on the inward rather than the outer, and demands full attention. Gradually, however, things right themselves, and the outer becomes a reality again.

Thus it is that my colleague in The Trade, Matilda Hatt, got my attention by sending me some material gleaned from that beacon of shining democracy, Iran. I have taken Tilly's material and re-organized it under the following headings.

The Beauty: Nina Siakhali Moradi

The Beast: The Iranian Council of Qazvin

The Issue: In a recent election for the Council in charge of the town of Qazvin, Ms Moradi was successful in winning a seat. This horrified the elders of the town, and her election was annulled on the grounds -- wait for it -- that she was "too pretty." (I am not making this up). The deciding body here was the Election Review Council, and they determined that Ms Moradi's appearance, even if well hijabbed, would be too distracting for her fellow, male Council members.

It is interesting to note that Ms Moradi was elected with a plurality of some 10,000 votes, streets ahead of anyone else. Hence those votes must have come, not just from eager female supporters, but a slew of others, including a goodly portion of males.
This aspect gives some hope for an Iranian future not controlled by theocrats yearning for the return of the Ninth Century.

Also interesting is the fact that the Review Council has in the past indicated that in all cases, Allah's strictures are followed. Yet, as Tilly went some length to find out, it was this very Council that permitted Ms Moradi to run for election in the first place, the prevailing thinking being that she didn't stand a chance. This apparently was the will of Allah, who of course is infallible, and to date Tilly, nor anyone else, has learned how the Council will square this particular circle. Good luck with that, Council.

My Response to the Council: I have had Keats' Ode on a Grecian Urn translated into Farsi, and, with some help from the inestimable Miss Hatt, sent it to the Council members (as well as Ms Moradi, along with some words to her of commendation and encouragement). I have drawn the Council's attention to the last lines of the Ode, "Beauty is truth, truth beauty. That is all / Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know."

I am sure that the Council will appreciate the gesture.

Friday, August 9, 2013


History would appear to be repeating itself. In the old Soviet Union, projects were undertaken that altered the course of rivers, built dams wherever possible, created cities perched uneasily on permafrost, and poured tons and tons of concrete here, there and everywhere. Cost was never a problem. This manner of thinking is much in evidence at Sochi, the proposed site for the 2014 Winter Olympic Games hosted by Russia.

Sochi itself is problematic, and one wonders what Vladimir Putin was thinking -- or smoking -- when he put the site forward. It has a sub-tropical climate and according to my research, is one of the few places in Russia where snow is scarce. The ground was once swampy and infested with malarial mosquitoes, although these nasty creatures seem to have disappeared. But you never really know.

Moreover, it is not often that the temperature falls below zero, and the lower slopes of the Caucasus Mountains do not guarantee snow. The organisers therefore have stored snow from the previous winter.

A final note of caution. Sochi is close to the north Caucasus, predominately settled by Muslims and who are immersed in a vicious conflict with Russia. According to Caucasian Knot, a monitoring organization, last year Russia lost 296 soldiers, as many as America lost in Afghanistan in the same period of time. To crazed jihadists, the opportunities for mayhem must be salivating.

And the cost? The Economist* estimated these at $50 billion U.S. -- the most expensive games in history. All of the funds come from the public purse or state-owned banks. As for corruption, well, in Russia corruption is not a side effect but simply the way business is done. Where workers are concerned, $500 per month is usual with no contracts, safety training or insurance. Wages at times are delayed, and sometimes not paid at all.

Needless to say, the work is sub-standard, and one hopes that Olympic officials alert athletes to watch their step. ALL THE TIME.

Finally, the issue of gay rights has surfaced. Russia's Parliament, or Duma, given a nod by Putin, has made being gay a criminal offence. This enables Russian police, throwing aside any pretext of servicing or protecting, to arrest, detain and deport any foreigners who "propagandize".

As Bill Maher has noted in his recent Real Time television show. "Well, there goes Olympic figure skating."

Has Putin lost it Big Time? Just asking.

* The Economist, July 13,2013, p. 45

Thursday, August 1, 2013

Notes On Votes

While recuperating from my recent bout with Cholangitis, I stayed with a close friend who lived near the hospital where I was being treated. (Can't be too careful about these things).

Now it so happened that part of the city was enduring a by-election and hence was subject to candidates coming to the front door, and explaining why their candidate deserved my vote. Being from another riding, I had no vote in that particular jurisdiction, and my friend stated that there was no reason for me to respond to the request to learn all about the candidate's proposals for re-election.

I said that this was not a problem, and, were a candidate to hove into view, I would gladly illustrate what I meant.

Shortly after, this occurred.

We invited the candidate in, a somewhat breathless young woman afflicted with Purpose. She shook our hands, and gave us both a flyer outlining all good things that would come to be were she to be elected. I studied the pamphlet for a moment, then asked, "Where is it? I can't seem to find it."

"Where is what?" the woman said.

I replied,"The programs you have to cut, in order to accomplish the objectives stated in the flyer. We are already in a deficit position, taxes are at an all-time high, and therefore spending cuts to certain programs must occur. I have looked at your information to see what programs would be affected, and they don't appear to be here."

She stared at me a moment, then, realizing that this was a classic Lost Cause, took her leave.

"You see," I said to my friend, "the minute you draw on Reality, the whole political edifice crumbles, and the candidates go away."

"Unless you're Rob Ford," she countered.

"Unless you're Rob Ford. Pity he's not with the Federal Government dealing with the First Nations. Chief Redman Hood of the Standing Buffalo First Nation, to be specific. If ever a program should be cut, it would be this one. The Chief has refused to give up his office and his $194,737 tax-free salary as infuriated and impoverished band members try to impeach him. If you look further," I continued, "he makes the equivalent of $317,583 for someone living off-reserve and paying taxes. By comparison, Premier Brad Wall of Saskatchewan was paid $158,566 and Prime Minister Harper earned $315,462. Not bad for the Chief, considering Standing Buffalo has only 443 residents living there."

"Now that's a gravy train,"my friend observed.