Friday, June 30, 2006

Simplifying the “Thank You” Guidelines

The U.S. House of Representatives adopted a measure on Wednesday that, should it subsequently be passed by the Senate, will grant Taiwan the diplomatic recognition that a normal, democratic state deserves.

Back in 2001, the nascent Bush government had established “guidelines” for how U.S. officials could deal with their counterparts in Taipei. Among other things, the guidelines banned visits by Taiwanese diplomats from visiting the White House and the State Department, prevented U.S. officials from attending 10/10 celebrations (the birth of the Chinese Republic on October 10, 1911) and made it illegal for senior U.S. military officials to visit Taiwan.

Oh, and the guidelines even had provisions on how government officials were to thank each other in diplomatic notes. One thank you too many, or a more heartfelt one than was permissible, and Beijing was sure to be offended.

In case you hadn’t figured it out already, the above guidelines were mostly, if not entirely, established so as to appease the powers in Beijing.

But the whole affair had an aura of falsehood round it; more than that, it made U.S. claims of being a friend and promoter of democracy ring hollow. How could Washington impose such restrictions on how it deals with one of the strongest, most vibrant democracies in East Asia, when it routinely deals with unsavory regimes the world over, from Uzbekistan’s to Saudi Arabia’s, for example, or even Beijing itself, whose unelected leadership has been treated to the red carpet on more than one occasion. More than just being counterproductive and hypocritical, this measure had managed, back in May, to humiliate Taiwanese President Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁) by denying him landing rights as he was transiting through the U.S. on a return flight from South America. While coverage of this even must have proven entertaining for the officials in Beijing, the ordeal was nothing but conduct unbecoming for the elected representative of a country that has quite successfully experimented with democracy.

Another irony of the guideline was that it needlessly complicated diplomatic exchanges with one side of a very complex and potentially explosive political conflict, that of the Taiwan Strait. To a lesser degree, this arrangement was akin to the U.S.’s position vis-à-vis the Israelis and the Palestinians, a relationship so skewed as to make the term “honest broker” look like the mother of all euphemisms. And given the U.S. military’s responsibilities towards Taiwan, as per Oplan 5077-04, in case of Chinese aggression (see “The Hot Cold War,” June 6, 2006), it makes absolutely no sense that high-level exchanges between the military leadership of the two armed forces wouldn’t be permissible. If, in case of armed conflict, Taiwan is ever to act as a force multiplier, then bilateral exchanges between the two militaries is crucial.

The response to the proposed amendment went as predicted, with Beijing voicing strong opposition and claiming that it goes against the spirit of the “One China” principle. For its part, Taipei welcomed the news with boundless (and perhaps hyperbolic) enthusiasm, calling this a watershed in Taiwan-U.S. relations.

One could wonder—if you’ll allow me this bit of speculation—if perhaps North Korea’s resumption of bad neighborly behavior, what with its threat to test-fire a long-range missile and its utter disregard for nonproliferation, might not have encouraged Washington to rethink how it treats its more civilized allies in the region.

Now, let’s see how Taipei’s next “thank you” note (for if this amendment passes one is sure to be dispatched) will be received back in Washington.

Thursday, June 29, 2006

Book Review:
Fires of the Dragon

David E. Kaplan's Fires of the Dragon (Scribner, 1992) skillfully balances biographical reconstruction with that of the historical and political currents that shaped the lives of the main participants in this gripping tale of espionage, intrigue, and murder. This is as suspenseful a page turner as any of Eric Ambler's or John Le Carre's best works. It is also superbly paced and has very few of the redundancies that so often haunt books of this genre.

Kaplan does a superb job at mingling the lives of the principal characters - writer Henry Liu (江南), the Chiang family back in Taipei, and a wide-ranging cast which includes Taiwanese, Mainland and American spies, government officials, and the criminal underworld - with the laden events of the Nationalists' "loss" of China to the Communists in 1949 and their exile to neighboring Taiwan. The author's portrayal of Taiwan under Chiang Kai-shek and his son, Ching-kuo (蔣經國), and of the repressive security apparatus they relied upon to sustain their power over the island, is thorough and altogether informative. The regime's aggressive intelligence activities overseas, which included influencing foreign governments (namely that in Washington), stealing weapons technology, spying on the Chinese diaspora and dissident groups, and - the backbone of the book - a direct role in the assassination, in 1984, of Henry Liu, a journalist who played all three countries' intelligence services to his advantage and who wrote a critical biography of Ching-kuo, are brought to light with a commendable attention to detail.

Buttressing the events so deftly described by Kaplan are the shifting grounds of politics of the period, as Washington switches its recognition from the Republic of China on Taiwan to that of the People's Republic of China. There, too, Kaplan excels at providing just the right amount of information to understand the history of the Washington-Beijing-Taipei triumvirate. Above all, his book demonstrates how the interplay of history and politics can affect the lives of those who choose to be participating citizens, as Henry Liu certainly was. It is, above all, the tale of one man who never shied from telling the truth to power and who unsparingly criticized both Beijing and Taipei. So incisive was the journalist's writing that, in the end, the underworld of Taipei's security apparatus, with help from criminal elements, extended their reach all the way to California and assassinated Liu at his residence.

Even though the book wraps up around 1992, at which point both Chiang father and son have left the scene and been replaced by the reformist Lee Teng-hui(李登輝), Kaplan's book still manages to retain its immediacy. More than fifty years after Mao's military victory on the Mainland, the Taiwan Strait issue remains unresolved. Not far behind that lingering diplomatic tension lurk old reflexes that, given the right circumstances, could undoubtedly give rise to reprehensible behavior of the kind that is so vividly exposed in this book. Taiwan's transformation, in so little time, from a state ruled by fear into an overwhelmingly vibrant democracy is nothing less than miraculous. Fires of the Dragon provides all the information one needs to fully realize why such a result indeed is the stuff of miracles.
The Key to Gaza

Sad and reprehensible as was the kidnapping of 19-year-old Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit during a cross-border raid on Sunday, the act does not warrant the kind of response that Israel has visited upon the residents of Gaza. Once again, Israel's reaction to acts of aggression against it is stunningly disproportionate. The bombing of bridges and the disruption of water supplies (an illegal act) to the city of 1.4 million Palestinians is punishing an entire population for the actions of a few. Added to low-altitude over-flight of Syrian territory by Israeli military aircraft, the arrest in the West Bank of 64 Hamas officials whom Israel accuses of being linked to terrorism, and military mobilization outside the Gaza Strip, the response is of such disproportionateness as to make one wonder if the kidnapping of the young corporal might not have provided the pretext that Israeli had sought so that it could re-enter territory that it evacuated a year ago. Hell, not even the kidnapping of American soldiers in Baghdad has ever led to such show of force.

Once more, Israel has demonstrated its contempt for the law of war that stipulates that military organizations are to use proportionality whenever they make recourse to force; in other words, the military advantages of bombing a target, for example, must overwhelmingly outweigh the loss of life attendant to that act. Similarly, reaction to the kidnapping of a soldier must make use of the same ratio. Clearly, given the nature of the crime, bombing bridges and depriving a population of access to potable water (let alone internationalizing the situation by invading Syrian airspace) are anything but proportional. Look at it from any angle, a ratio of 1:1,400,000 just isn't permissible.

Israel ostensibly wanted back into Gaza; unwittingly, corporal Shalit provided the key to the city.

Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Professional Improvisation

Many countries around the world, including Taiwan, are striving to make English a semi-official, or downright official, second language. What these countries hope is that by thus empowering the new and future generations of students, it will be easier for them to develop business links at the international level. The strategy is a sound one, and the difference in language skills between older generations and the new ones is already noticeable.

With this enthusiasm for English came business opportunities. Cram schools, after-school schools and specialized schools have proliferated all over the cities, and numerous specialized magazines have appeared on the newsstands. This, of course, created a second business opportunity, this time for foreigners, who poured into those countries with the expectation of finding well-paying jobs with little difficulty.

The problem, however, is that many of the expatriates who joined the linguistic gold rush are not properly trained, or do not have the necessary credentials, to operate in fields such as teaching, editing, and writing. While I am not in a position to directly speak to the quality of the education that is being provided by the foreigners, I can, however, comment on the quality of the so-called writers and editors who are hired by the local magazines and newspapers.

Consider this: in a recent issue of a magazine which I shall refrain from naming, young Taiwanese readers are being taught to avoid certain words and expressions which are now considered politically incorrect. So far, there is nothing wrong with the endeavor, and students should indeed avoid calling physically- or mentally-challenged individuals "handicapped" or "retarded," respectively, or Asians "Orientals."

Everything goes down the drain, however, when the factoid in which other examples are provided informs the reader that non-native people living in a country (yours truly, for example) should not be called foreigners, but rather ex-patriots. Hapless is the kid who absorbs the material and, perhaps years later, uses this hard-earned knowledge during an entry examination at some university abroad. Asked to describe how he sees himself, said student proudly recalls the lesson on political correctness and, intent on impressing his would-be future tutors with his command of English, he retrieves the secret weapon, the "ex-patriot."

The English vocabulary isn't colorful enough to describe the student's sense of existential angst when, upon receiving his exam results, he realizes that points were taken off for his use of "ex-patriot." What's wrong with this word, he asks around. It is a word, right? Well, it's a compound, alright, consisting of a prefix (ex-) and a noun (patriot). The problem, though, is that the magazine whose information the eager student faithfully swallowed many years ago had confused ex-patriot—meaning someone who no longer feels a sense of duty towards his country—with expatriate, the word used to describe someone who resides in a country other than that of his birth or of which he is a citizen. Though they sound alike, the twain clearly mean something different.

Now, there is nothing fundamentally wrong with mixing words; it happens to the ablest, most experienced editors. What is unpardonable, however, is for a magazine to publish so blatant an error when, in theory at least, no article appearing in a magazine goes to print without first going through a handful of editors for primary checks, proofreads, and final checks. For an error like this one to find its way into print, it means that it slipped through the hands of three or four editors, if not more—unless, that is, the editorial process was obviated, which would represent yet another case of professional irresponsibility.

But this example is but one lurid one among many. In the past months, I have seen 120-word articles employing as many as eighteen exclamation marks—the entire text had been taken over by an army of vertical lines and dots, as if the intent of the article were no other than to exercise the muscles associated with raising one's eyebrows. Like too much of a good thing, the result was that the sense of elation that usually accompanies an exclamation mark had lost all meaning, like a speedboat without an engine. Clumsy, run-on, illogical, redundant and just plain wrong sentences abound, both before and, sadly, after print.

There are many individuals working as writers here who would never manage to find similar work in their home country. I have come upon more than my share of articles written by freelancers who had better find another line of work soon lest they be ordered by the state never to come close to a pen or a word processor again, or else.

It is becoming increasingly clear that many expatriates are improvising themselves as writers and editors. Sadly, this implies that rather than receiving the skills that should given them a clear advantage at the global scale, entire generations of non-English-speakers are being exposed to amputated or deformed writing styles, poor grammar, and fitful syntax (I'd never thought that commas, columns and semi-columns could mystify such a number of people). Another consequence of this irresponsible act of improvisation is that it gives a bad name to those individuals out there who are professional editors who take their profession seriously.

In theory, there are mechanisms by which the bona fide writers and editors can be separated from the impostors. To take Taiwan's example, no foreigner can, in theory, obtain his work permit as an editor without having either a Master's Degree and/or a minimum of three years' experience working as an editor, with proven references. Unfortunately, employers have found a way round this requirement and simply obtain work permits through the far-less stringent system by which cram school teachers are employed. Once that permit has been obtained, the foreigner (I am being politically incorrect here) never sets foot in a school but instead is hired as an editor. Why? Too few qualified professional writers and editors are being attracted to the region; as a result, magazine publishers have no choice but to make do with unqualified personnel.

This, in a nutshell, accounts for the generally-poor or uneven-quality English-language magazines that one will find throughout East Asia and, I suspect, elsewhere. No one in his right mind would ever hire unqualified nurses or doctors. Why should it be different for those individuals who are entrusted with the ever-so-important responsibility of teaching people how to express themselves logically and eloquently?

The remedy—and there are signs that it is on its way, at least in Taiwan—is a government crackdown on companies that hire people who are illegitimate writers and editors. Absent such drastic measures, the future leaders of those countries will approach the outside world with great confidence, only to realize, rather painfully, as our imaginary student in the above scenario did, that the tools they were given were defective.

Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Absent Oversight, a Free Press

Bad, bad New York Times. As a result of its decision to publish a certain story on Washington's "war on terror," the reputable newspaper has had a finger-pointing U.S. President Bush accusing it of making the effort "more difficult." Vice-President Cheney, ever a friend of the free press, made similar accusations, pointing out that despite being told by high authorities not to disclose certain programs, the New York Times had gone ahead and had thereby caused "damage." The White House Press Secretary, Tony Snow, went even further, saying that the paper had betrayed the long tradition of maintaining state secrets during wartime (not to mention his making an invidious and atrociously misleading hint that the newspaper should feel responsible if people died as a result of its decision to publish the article).

The most recent incident involves a story published by the newspaper on the CIA's gaining access to the Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication, or Swift, a Belgium-based international financial database that routes about 11 million transactions daily among 7,800 banks in 200 countries. Now, in and of itself, this kind of access isn't necessarily a cause for alarm. If the intrusiveness is proportional to the benefits of the information obtained, and if this activity truly allows the authorities to obtain intelligence on the movement of terrorism-related money, than it could be argued that those measures are acceptable.

The heart of the matter, however, lies in the oversight, in the evaluation of the benefits versus the disadvantages of states engaging in activities of this type. And that's where the real problem exists and why newspapers like the New York Times are so important. Sad to say, the current oversight of intelligence matters around the world is risible, toothless, and at best a cosmetic contrivance to assuage the fears of the citizens. The truth is, there exists no serious and effective oversight of intelligence activities in the post-9/11 world; such bodies are under-staffed, under-funded, and treated with contempt and circumspection by the very agencies whose activities they are, by mandate, charged with overseeing.

The only true line of defense against abuse of power, therefore, lies in the press, and it is consequently no wonder that governments, both in the U.S. and in Canada (and elsewhere, obviously), will do their utmost to smother the information. That is why Ottawa imposed a publication ban on the prosecution of the Group of 17 (see "Walls," June 13, 2006), and why Bush et al are currently annoyed with the New York Times.

But where did the Times get its information on the program from? After all, details of such activities are classified, which means that (absent fabrication) there's only one possible source—the leak. The next logical question we should ask ourselves, then, is why someone, or a group of people, feel the need to hand over the classified information, at great personal risk, to the press. Again, the answer lies in oversight, or lack thereof. Someone, somewhere, had second thoughts or doubts about the legality of what the CIA was doing (as do some Democrats, by the way), and seeing that the existing institutions were unable to put a check on that, the only other option was to leak the story.

The language used by Bush, Cheney and Snow in particular is revealing. The Press Secretary states that we are in wartime and that as such military secrets should be kept close to the chest. As I wrote a few days ago (see Friday June 23, 2006), there is no such thing as a "war on terror," as terrorism is but a technique, a genie out of the bottle, existing out there, as a concept. By making war a perpetual one—and by inheritance Bush's is one, for there is no defeating a concept—the press now finds itself under the obligation not to write on such matters, ever. Moreover, as intelligence services have a tendency to classify everything and to over-classify everything classified, this would entail that the press is now in the unfavorable position of not being able to write anything about ongoing intelligence-gathering programs. This, for obvious reasons, is utterly unacceptable. Open societies should not—cannot—agree to an open-ended war that gives undue permissions to those in power, all in the name of so-called security.

The New York Times' dedication to exposing the activities of the United States government is commendable, and the editors should be applauded for standing firm on their decision to go ahead and publish—even if they risk, as has already been suggested, prosecution from the U.S. government. Sadly, as long as governments continue to regard oversight of intelligence matters as a nuisance rather than an important component of the activity, the only means by which abuses can be prevented, checked and exposed will lie in the free press.

Sunday, June 25, 2006

Going Not So Rapidly to the Rapids

There is a very good reason why I broke my 25-day writing streak this Saturday. This weekend, we set out to Kaohsiung, Taiwan’s second-largest city, located to the south of the island. Kaohsiung, which lies below the Tropic of Cancer, is almost as far south as Hanoi in Vietnam. It also happens to be one of the warmest places in Taiwan. But our final destination wasn’t the city itself, rather, it was Lao Nong river, one of the most exciting spots for rafting in the country.

We left Taipei City during the night of Friday to Saturday, taking the midnight bus leaving from Taipei Main Station. The distance, as the bird flies, between Taipei City and Kaohsiung is 290 kilometers (for the sake of comparison, that between Montreal and Quebec City is 270 km). This is close to the full length of the country itself, at approximately 360 km from the northernmost part to the southernmost one. In relatively flat countries like Canada, driving the 290 km would take around three hours, if not less. But Taiwan is, well, a bit different. The expressway which links the two cities is anything but straight; instead, it winds its way round mountains and goes through numerous changes in altitude. With a 40-minute break in the middle of the night, we arrived in Kaohsiung at 07:00 the next morning. In little more than six hours, we had covered the 290 km.

On the way there, and even more so on the way back, we could see how fecund the Taiwanese soil is: all around us, the country’s trademark bluish layered mountains hovered about; below them, thick forests bursting with life (there are more butterflies in Taiwan than anywhere else I have been to), flooded rice fields were brushing elbows with sugar cane fields, palm trees, bamboo, and mango trees. To prevent insects from eating the delicious fruit, every single fruit in a mango tree is covered by a bag.

But the discomfort of sitting on a bus was soon forgotten as we caught our first glimpse of the river we would soon be taking on. First, however, we needed to get our gear and stand in an oven-like hall while a burly Taiwanese explained in Mandarin how to properly harness our safety vests (do it the wrong way and as they pull you out of the water your family jewels will remind you that you should pay more attention next time). After we were done listening to the man (during which half hour I must have sweated gallons of water), we were put on a bus and headed for the embarkation area. Altogether, there must have been fifty eight-seater rafting boats on the river. We divided into teams and soon got on our boat.

We got to an ill-boding start. No sooner had we engaged into the water than we hit a small rock and two of our passengers went overboard. Once we’d recuperated our team members, we decided to reorganize who did what. As the heaviest person on the boat, I was put in front, one of the two rowers. Next to me, Chris, a Taiwanese editor at the magazines I work for, had the other paddle. We were the two men on the raft. Stephanie, sitting behind me, was the only crew member who’d ever done rafting before.

There are six official categories for whitewater rafting, though the sixth one doesn’t really apply to mortals. Class I is no rapids, smooth flowing water; II is some rough water, though the way is clear and easy to see; III is active but safe for large raft boats; IV is for experienced paddlers only; the route through the rapids may require quick maneuvering; V is worse; and VI is impassable, exploratory only. Ours was a IV. Chris and I weren’t bad on the paddling, but experienced we certainly weren’t. Still, we managed to do the entire river with relatively little damage. Many other rafts capsized at the more challenging points. Often, we’d see helmets, paddles and running shoes pass us by in the water. Whenever there were too many people in the water, the rule was that we were to wait for them on the bank while the rescuers, armed with speedboats (and one of them with a cigarette in his mouth, without fail) put everything back together. One area proved especially difficult on the rafters, so much so that their trip ended there and they were driven back to the base. The physical injuries were all minor, but the psychological damage was done; many swore they’d never set foot in water ever again.

But that wasn’t us. We cleared the waves, rocks and other obstacles with unexpected skill, and during the entire bumpy ride we only lost one more person (the lightest of us all, and she was, indeed, quite a diminutive Taiwanese). We also lost five or six shoes, but in the process we managed to get from two to four paddles (no one seems to know where they came from).

It was an amazing experience, demanding physically but quite cathartic. As I write this early Sunday morning, every muscle in my body, from the legs up, reminds me that what we did yesterday was no walk in the park. Rafting is an occasion to be in nature and to challenge yourself. Every now and then and depending on the level of difficulty, we are reminded that nature is in charge. You can maneuver, paddle and hold on to dear life; sometimes you’ll manage to alter the conditions so that the worst is avoided. But as with everything else in life, you can only do so much. Sometimes, you have no choice but to go with the flow. In a way, rafting provides a good metaphor for life. It teaches us, much like the wise Lao Tzu did a long time ago, that one need accept, as opposed to always fight, one’s fate, and to let life take us where we are meant to go.

Friday, June 23, 2006

Experts and the Inevitability of Terrorism

"We live in a world where [terrorism] is inevitable," Keith Weston, the former head of the counterterrorism unit of London's metropolitan police force, said during a disaster management conference held recently. Though he seems to think otherwise (he did say this, after all), Weston, who is now regarded as a so-called counterterrorism "expert," certainly isn't breaking new ground here. In fact, this statement is no more informative than if a baseball analyst, say, were to tell us that swinging a bat will always be inevitable in baseball.

How can an alleged expert (beware of anyone who calls himself an expert, by the way; there are so many of them out there that if I were Bin Laden I would have moved to the Moon by now), confuse a technique with geography? Of course terrorism is inevitable, as are dropping bombs or firing bullets in war. When Israel fires missiles into Gaza, some people on the ground are bound to feel terrorized. Is that inevitable? Yes; violence terrorizes. As long as there are asymmetrical conflicts, people to be swayed, governments to be intimidated, and political ends to be achieved, terrorism will continue to be resorted to, no matter what shape or form it takes. As a technique, it is but one of the multiple heads of the hydra, one among the many means by which humans can visit ills upon their brethren. Uppercuts, karate kicks and head butts are inevitable, too. Methods and techniques are nothing more than intellectual concepts transformed into action to achieve an end. They always have been and always will be with us. That is the reason, by the way, why Bush's "War on Terrorism" is such a misnomer—one simply cannot wage war on a technique (what do you shoot at? where? what with?).

Conversely, there is absolutely nothing inevitable about where terrorism will occur, and this is what really matters—even more so when the same expert claims to have been shocked by how Toronto was ill-prepared for and vulnerable to a terrorist attack. Put "inevitable," "vulnerable," and "Toronto" in the same sentence, are we'll soon all be hiding under our beds.

To make matters a little more simple (and I wish the "experts" could read this): the technique of terrorism is inevitable; it is part of the multi-pronged arsenal we have at our disposal. However, there is nothing teleological about the method of terrorism, as if it were some type of cancer that will only stop proliferating after it has enveloped the entire planet. Where terrorism occurs is predicated on the actions of states (its alliances, real or imagined, troop deployments, as well as political rhetoric) and specific circumstances. There was nothing inevitable about the London bombings, which for obvious reasons must have left an indelible, albeit judgment-clouding, impression on Weston. And Torontonians need not worry: a terrorist attack in the metropolis is anything but inevitable. It'll depend on how our government, our intellectuals, the media and the public choose to play the game.
Setting the Record Straight

Readers will notice that ever since I began writing this blog, one thing I haven't done is mince my words when I criticize something. From the government in Beijing to the mass media in Taiwan, from suffocating Kowloon to the security intelligence service in Canada and the whole recent "terror circus," all have been at the receiving end of my sometimes provocative (or so I like to think) opinions.

Though I do not always agree with everything Christopher Hitchens, the chain-smoking contrarian, says and writes, one thing I definitely admire in him is his great equanimity; no deserving soul, whether he be layman or former National Security Advisor, escapes his scathing and sometimes downright vitriolic remarks. If one is to speak truth to power, as the late Edward Said once wrote, then one mustn't shy away from using the pen or the spoken word against whomever or whatever deserves to be put in the penalty box.

That being said, I would like to preempt the criticism that I see looming on the horizon with regards to certain comments that I have made concerning the organization that I used to work for and in which many of my good friends still spend the majority of their time. As a number of my readers come from that organization, the last thing that I want is for my writings to be construed as a slight against them. Whoever you are out there, please be assured that my opinions, however incisive and contrarian, are in no way, shape, or form against the individuals. When I write about intelligence officers wasting away in their airless office corners, for example, I am not attacking the people themselves, but rather the organization, in this instance CSIS, and what it does to them and what it forces them to do. I am convinced of the altruistic intentions of most of the individuals who join that organization, and would be the last to claim that security intelligence is but a waste of resources and money. However, when the institution takes on a life of its own, and when its purpose becomes something other than the protection of the constituents, I cannot but put ink to paper, as it were, and reveal things for what they are. It is most unfortunate if, in the process, I end up ruffling some egos. But I won't apologize for it. At worst, battered egos are collateral, the by-product of the to-ing and fro-ing of intellectual debate. As the British writer and journalist Timothy Garton-Ash recently said in an interview in the Canadian magazine Maclean's, the job of intellectuals "is to find the facts as far as [they] can and then to tell it straight. Anyone who's involved in democratic politics has to work with half truth, [meaning that] the government gives one side of the story, one half of the story." That's where the clash comes from. As an intellectual who has spent some time within the halls of government, I feel it my duty, inasmuch as it is within my power, to tell both sides of the story.

Finally, I would like to use this opportunity to once again invite all the readers who feel the need to do so to share their comments on the things that I write about in here. Never have I claimed (nor will I ever) to hold unassailable truths on the topics that I tackle; what I write is nothing more than an informed opinion on certain things. If only my entries could spark debate, make people think and react, then I will have accomplished what I set out to do when I first started writing this blog.

Thursday, June 22, 2006

Please Don't Shoot, Kim

The entire East Asian region, along with the United States, is holding its breath as the incertitude over North Korea's possible long-range missile test launch continues. Defense scientists in South Korea, Japan, and the U.S. can't agree on how to interpret the imagery intelligence, or IMINT, on the launch site. Given the hermetic nature of a closed state like North Korea, human intelligence, or HUMINT, on the preparations for (and the goal of) the possible launch is sparse.

In the past few days, the Pentagon has hinted that should North Korea go ahead with its test, the U.S. might consider the option of intercepting or shooting it down with its anti-missile defense system.

But the likelihood that the U.S. would resort to this option is very low. There are three main reasons why this is so, which I list here in ascending order of importance.

First, as some commentators have pointed out, intercepting a North Korean missile would engender a strong reaction from the international community. Though very few people care for the regime in Pyongyang and would rather that it refrained from firing missiles left and right, the U.S. ballistic missile defense system also happens to be very contentious. It would seem that in certain countries, such global capabilities leave an unpalatable aftertaste of military imperialism. International opposition to this system notwithstanding, it is unlikely that Washington would allow itself be deterred (remember Iraq, anyone?).

The second, more serious possibility is that an interception would lead to an escalation of the conflict between North Korea and the U.S., as both sides (including regional allies) could interpret these actions as acts of war. We should always remember that once people leave the diplomatic table and start launching missiles and interceptors (tests or otherwise), we are one step closer to armed conflict. These are no accusations thrown across the negotiating room or documents tabled at the United Nations Security Council; missiles and interceptors are fast, hard, and laden with dangers. As Washington is already embroiled in Iraq and sees the Iranian threat looming dangerously close, it would be surprising if it chose to act in such a way as would increase tensions in the Korean Peninsula.

The third and likeliest reason why Washington will refrain from choosing the intercept option is more technical and lies in the fact that the anti-missile system is unproven. So far, despite billions of dollars in investment, the track record in intercepting missiles in flight, from the Patriot battery system deployed in Saudi Arabia and Israel during the Second Persian Gulf War of 1991 to test firings in recent years, has been an unexciting one. Technical challenges aside, numerous difficult-to-know variables such as decoys, multiple heads, or simply random inaccuracy resulting from poor missile design (in the one that needs to be intercepted, that is) make it so much harder to hit the bullet on the nose as it blazes through the sky.

But I digress. The heart of the matter is that nothing would hurt Washington more than to fire an interceptor at the North Korean missile, and to miss. In such a scenario, not only would Pyongyang successfully test-fire its missile, but more importantly Washington would lose face, thus sending a message of weakness around the world. The consequences for the regional powers' faith in U.S. military protection, from Japan to South Korea to Taiwan, would be immense. (I can already see Kim Jong-Il gloating, Chinese military officials toasting, and the higher-ups at the Pentagon scratching their heads.)

Given the unreliability of the interceptor system, I do not see the Pentagon making such a gamble—unless, that is, they see North Korea's launch not as a test but as a bona fide attack, which would lead us down an entirely different path.

For the time being, we can expect more diplomacy and pleas to Jong-Il. Please don't shoot, Kim.

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

The Monster on the Wall

I think I read that in a John Le Carré novel sometime last year, probably in Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy or The Honorable Schoolboy, both part of the famous Karla Trilogy. I don't remember the exact wording, but it had something to do with intelligence agencies needing to overestimate the capabilities of their opponents so that they could inflate their own importance and justify their existence. After all, what use are we if the opponent, rather than being this formidable enemy, is an incompetent idiot?

The more I look at the Group of Seventeen in Toronto, the more obvious it becomes that they were, at best, a bunch of misguided youth who probably represented more of a danger to themselves than to the Canadian system. Yesterday, La Presse, a Montreal-based French-language newspaper, had an interesting article on the subject, in which it revealed, among other things, that the group may have been "dangled," in the language of the trade, by a source who had infiltrated their group. In other words, at the behest of Canadian authorities, the said source may have encouraged the group members to aim for something bigger than they were capable of, or had intended to accomplish. In law-enforcement jargon, this is called entrapment—and it is illegal. Law enforcement officials cannot lead an individual to commit a crime only to arrest that person for committing that crime.

What better reason would there be for a publication ban on the whole affair than the need to keep those facts away from the public? If this is the case, then I extend kudos to the people who orchestrated the whole thing, for the dog was deftly wagged. A situation was facilitated—or worse, created—by the authorities, who all along had a full view of what was going on. How else could we explain that, despite being aware that they were under surveillance, the Group of Seventeen continued planning whatever it is that they had in mind? Is it just me or might they not have been led to believe that no action would be taken against them? Remember, these are impressionable youth we are talking about, and if, as the authorities suggest, they were credulous enough to swallow an ideology of hatred, then what was there to prevent them from also swallowing whatever it is that the source wanted them to believe? Credulous individuals aren't credulous for one purpose but not for another. If they buy something idiotic once, chances are that they will buy again.

As they were partly the architects of the so-called terror plan, the authorities could take their time and were able to arrest the suspects with relative ease, albeit with great media fanfare. If, as seems to be the case, there wasn't much of a threat to deal with, then how can you make it appear as if the very end of the world was upon us? By dispatching hundreds of police officers, deploying the SWAT teams, and putting helicopters in the sky—in other words, by making a show of it. There was no use whatsoever for such show of force. I wouldn't be altogether surprised if it were at one point revealed that the screenwriters and directors of the popular TV series 24 had acted as consultants to the whole thing! Terror was used effectively, but Ottawa certainly doesn't want to share the making-of with the audience. Better keep it a mystery, lest people stop suspending their disbelief. People have seen the gigantic shadow of a monster-like insect on the wall; what they didn't see, however, are the minute insect and the spotlight behind it.

The whole affair reeks of fabrication. The Group of Seventeen probably matter little to the authorities; they are, after all, disposable, and in the Anti-terrorist Act we have all the dispensations that make it relatively easy to do so. What matters to CSIS et al is the illusion that we are indeed facing a grave threat from terrorism. It justifies budgets and new buildings, and it inflates the ego. The analysts in those little offices need that, as does the management, which suffocates if it runs out of the helium that keeps it afloat. What may come as a shocker to some readers is that because of compartmentalization (see "Walls," June 13 below), the majority of people within the intelligence community are also being played, and they have no access to the information and no means to ascertain its veracity. In a way, the publication ban ensures that critical minds within the community are also shut out and unable to expose the lie.

Ultimately, the function of terror as illusion is two-fold: it keeps the masses in a state of apprehension which inherently makes them more malleable; and it convinces the spooks that there is a meaning to what they do, that they are not wasting away in those little rooms of theirs for no conceivable reason.

Tuesday, June 20, 2006

No, No, This Isn't What We Meant!

Finally, it was starting to look like Beijing had a powerful propaganda item on its hands when, a little while ago, Taiwan President Chen Shui-bian's (陳水扁) son-in-law, Chao Chien-ming (趙建銘), was detained on suspicion of insider stock trading. Since that incident, the Taiwanese opposition has vigorously campaigned for Chen to step down. Across the Strait, the government in Beijing was salivating and spared no effort to illustrate how corrupt Taiwan had become. The People's Daily News and the Xinhua news agency, both apparatuses of the Chinese government, couldn't have been happier to publish articles on the matter.

And then the propaganda cocktail blew up in Beijing's face, as ordinary Chinese began commenting on how wonderful Taiwan's "true democracy" was, so wonderful, in fact, that even the President's son-in-law wasn't beyond the reach of the law—a development that is altogether unthinkable in today's China. Internet chat rooms soon filled with references to Taiwan's "enviable" state and China's "true decay," the very antipode of what Beijing had hoped its citizens would swallow. Chinese-style Orwellian furnaces and Google-assisted Internet police notwithstanding, that little fire is out and free.

Adding to the delicacy of the whole incident is the fact that Beijing University had intended to invite Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) Legislator Chiu Yi (邱毅), who made the initial allegations about Chao, for a lecture, with the hope that he could kindle the flame of anti-corruption on the Mainland. As a result of the unexpected response to the news articles, however, Beijing has retracted its invitation, for fear that Chiu's visit would have an "undesirable" impact on Chinese society.

As experienced from the Taiwanese side, the entire recall motion against President Chen stinks of an opposition that has long waited for the opportunity to pounce, fangs drawn, upon its weakened prey. In many ways, it reminds me of Bill Clinton during the impeachment circus, with the Republicans gleefully feeding like vampires at a blood banquet. Nevertheless, it is admirable that the Taiwanese system would allow for high-ranking individuals or people who are connected to such people (Chao is married to Chen's only daughter), to face the full weight of the law with such expediency. If it ever chose to pay attention to the heart of the matter instead of trying to extract the propaganda juices from it, China certainly could learn a lesson or two from the Chao incident. And so could Canada, come to think of it.
The Essence Lies in the Timing

I find it particularly interesting that the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) will usually openly discuss its foreign operations soon after a terrorism "incident" has occurred on Canadian soil. About two years ago, on March 30, 2004, Momin Khawaja, a resident of Orleans, outside Ottawa, became the first individual charged under Canada's Anti-terrorism Act. Two months later, CSIS was approaching the media and explaining that given the change in the nature of the threat, the Service had in recent years increased its activities abroad, which included dispatching Service assets (sources) to countries from which the threats emanated or developing more relationships with foreign agencies.

Fast-forward to early June this year, where seventeen individuals are nabbed in a massive anti-terror operation. For a solid 14 days, Southern Ontario's alleged brush with extremism was the news around town, and the agencies involved in the arrests basked in the spotlight of international media attention. No sooner had the terror been replaced by Edmonton's 7th-game loss to Carolina in the Stanley Cup Final than CSIS was once again making its case with the public. And the song sounds strangely familiar: given the changing nature of the threat, we need to (and we have) engage in more operations abroad, for which more money is required, et cetera et cetera et cetera. The one difference this time, however, is the admission, by Director Jim Judd himself, that CSIS is not only sending sources abroad, but that its very own home-grown operatives are doing the round trips, too—something that a few years ago no one at CSIS would ever have admitted to (in fact, during my time there, we were often instructed to deny that this was taking place).

There is no big surprise here. Like any other such agency around the world, CSIS is seizing the day and cashing in on the recent coup, just as the FBI, the CIA and MI6 (or BSIS) did after September 11, 2001. The opportunity is there, and the dread generated by the events that were not provides the momentum that the organization needs to make the final push towards becoming a foreign intelligence gathering agency. It's always been in the pipeline, and the moment is almost upon us.

Readers will note that this has happened gradually, with the nature of the foreign-based activities being revealed little by little. First, two years ago, we struck agreements with foreign agencies, or sent sources traveling. Now we're sending our own people. It reminds me of the frog that the scientist drops in a bucket of water. If the water's boiling, the frog will jump out to save its skin; increase the temperature gradually, however, and it will allow itself to boil to death.

In a way, the Canadian public is not unlike the unfortunate frog. Rather than being boiled to death, however, the instrument of fear is being used on them. Every two years or so, the sense of imminent danger is elevated a little. Nothing happens, mind you, but the doom and gloom is lurking just around the corner. It's a little more subtle than the color-based system that Canada's southern neighbor went for, but it operates in a similar fashion. Do this long enough, and the hitherto extremely contentious issue of Canada engaging in spying abroad has become an acceptable—in fact necessary—notion.

Is it just the summer heat, or are Canadians all sitting in one big soup pot, with the tribal people (for if nothing else, the game of spying is one big, expensive exercise in tribalism) dancing round it?

Monday, June 19, 2006

The Tehran and Pyongyang Game

What's with the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK) and the Islamic Republic of Iran these days? It seems that every week or so, one or the other will do something that goes flat-out counter to the will of the international community. For months, Tehran has been playing a maddening game of nuclear cat-and-mouse with the rest of the world, combining an unflinching position on its right to nuclear energy and enrichment with the occasional call for the destruction of the state of Israel. One day it says it is willing to negotiate, the next it harangues whoever intends to sit down at the negotiating table. Meanwhile, North Korea seems on the brink of mothballing years of painful negotiation with the regional powers plus the United States by giving all indications that it is about to test-fire a long-range ballistic missile.

Prima facie, the actions of these two governments seem illogical, if not altogether self-defeating. What good could possibly emerge from behavior that results in isolation from the international community and sets of sanctions?

At one level, the international community should keep in mind that the rationality of heads of state cannot be taken for granted. Put differently, that leaders like Kim Jong-Il and Mahmud Ahmadi-Nejad have the welfare of the people they govern at heart is not a given. Often, the comments of those leaders will demonstrate a certain disconnection from reality—as calling for the destruction of Israel, for example, an act to which retaliation could in no way be beneficial to the Iranian people.

That said, there is a marked distinction between Iran and the DPRK, one that has a substantive impact on how the world should assess the strategies behind those countries' actions. In North Korea's case, decision-making is largely the remit of the supreme leader, Jong-Il. For all intents and purposes, Jong-Il is the state, and the totalitarian mechanism that props him up makes it so that it is very difficult to distinguish between the leader's rhetoric and that of the state. Inherently, there are very few, if any, barriers to prevent the leader's irrational behavior from harming the state.

Iran's case is much different. The President's calls for the destruction of the State of Israel notwithstanding, decision-making in Tehran remains institutional; in other words, no single figure, however powerful, can dictate what the state should or should not do. A consequence of this is that institutional decision-making acts as a buffer against irrationality, one that should allay some of the fears of imminent destruction in Tel Aviv. Looked at from another angle, public statements overtly calling for the incineration of all things Jewish provide no small amount of drama and ample ammunition for think-tanks, intelligence agencies and defense departments the world over, but in reality the likelihood that Iran will act on such rhetoric is extraordinarily low.

So, if irrationality is not sufficient to explain the behavior of the two remaining corners of the alleged "Axis of Evil," is there something that the two rogue states have in common which could be used to explain the situation we're currently finding ourselves in?

There is, and it is the untenable status quo. Despite the efforts of the world's intelligence agencies, it is very difficult to ascertain what's going on in the minds of the decision-makers back in Tehran and Pyongyang. Nevertheless, it is not impossible to imagine that the status quo in either country is considered intolerable by the ruling regimes. In other words, there might be situations where anything but the status quo would be better. It's a little like a limb that's been fixed in the same position for too long: after a while, it becomes palsied and quite uncomfortable. Shifting that limb becomes the rational choice, even if in theory there is a chance that the new position will only bring more pain. Another example would be the reflex to swallow something that's singeing one's tongue rather than spit it out; it is not a rational choice. Logically, the last thing someone would think of doing would be to swallow the burning morsel of food, but the status quo (a burning tongue) needs to be altered—now.

As to how a status quo becomes untenable for a state, the possibilities are rife. Sometimes, due to domestic pressures that from the outside are hard to perceive, states will act in such a way as to elicit an external response. It could be as simple a reason as the need to demonstrate to certain interest groups, or the constituents, that the government is doing something. At other times, states will see the status quo as an opportunity to gain leverage at the negotiating table, to improve their bargaining power. Furthermore, however unrelated the Iranian and the DPRK cases might be, in the minds of the decision-makers, the template they use might be a binary one; in other words, they might see them as connected or as part of the same equation. If, for example, Pyongyang perceives that Tehran is ameliorating its position by stubbornly defying the international community, it might choose to do so itself, and vice-versa. If one manages to obtain something, the other will then be in a position to say, hey, you gave this to X, so why not us?

In sum, the above theories are my way of saying that however irrational and illogical the regimes in Tehran and Pyongyang might appear, they should not be seen as part of the same phenomenon, or used as interchangeable examples of bad diplomatic behavior. These are two different systems with different sets of checks and balances. Nor should we assume, especially in Iran's case, that irrationality is the key factor in the decision-making process. A perceived position of weakness resulting from a skewed status quo, as we have seen, could very well explain certain types of behavior that, on the surface, might appear dangerously close to suicidal (why would Iran defy the United States, for example, after seeing what's happened to its neighbor?). However, if irrationality is indeed the key factor, then all the world's eyes should definitely be fixed on Pyongyang. Meanwhile, Iran can be left on its own without posing too much of a threat to its neighbors—Israel included.

Sunday, June 18, 2006

World Coffees in Taipei

One inevitable refuge for residents of Taipei and tourists alike is the Kaldi coffee shop located within walking distance of Taipei 101. The name, Kaldi, comes from a legend about an Ethiopian goatherd who is believed to have discovered the coffee plant. With a beautiful, simple yet refined dark-wooden interior, large windows all round that bathe the interior in natural light, and soft, jazzy music playing in the background, Kaldi is the perfect spot to enjoy coffees from all over the world or, if you are otherwise inclined, a good selection of teas, waffles, and brownies. It is the perfect nook in which to drop everything and sit down to read a good book or do some writing. As the world below and outside the window goes a-bustle, inside Kaldi one finds himself in another, much calmer space. Containing no more than ten tables or so, it generously offers the intimacy that one simply cannot find in the larger chains like Starbucks or Dante’s. Sitting down for a coffee at Kaldi is an experience in and of itself, one that elevates all your senses. One doesn’t visit it for an on-the-go coffee, either. Rather, going to Kaldi is an event, and customers had well prepare themselves to spend at least an hour there.

From Brazil to Sumatra, Yemen to Blue Mountain, you can always expect the fresh aromas to titillate your taste buds. The coffees are rich, strong, and offer a pithy taste that will leave no connoisseur indifferent. Furthermore, as anyone who’s had coffee will know, rare are the coffees that do not leave an undesirable aftertaste; Kaldi’s are indisputably from that hard-to-find, pleasant breed.

The owner of the Kaldi chain (there are, I believe, three stores altogether) imports and roasts his own coffee beans, while his daughter manages the store about which I am writing here (and where the photographs were taken). The familiar and ever-friendly staff is very welcoming and will never fail to engage in friendly chit-chat, without ever lapsing into undue intrusiveness. And non-Mandarin-speakers need not worry, as the manager, having studied in New York City, speaks it perfectly well (her staff is learning it, too, at the very capable hands, if I may say so, of someone who happens to be very close to my heart).

In many ways, Kaldi has all the elements to make this special place a bit of a home away from home. For anyone who happens to be in Taipei and wants to look me up, a safe assumption would be that I’m at Kaldi’s absorbed in a book, with a delicious coffee fuming on the table before me.

Saturday, June 17, 2006


I will, sporadically, be posting some of my fictional work on this blog. Not only does this genre provide the reader (and the author) a refreshing and hopefully welcome pause from the travails of reality, but it also allows the author to explore reality in a slightly different way. Please note, however, that 1st-person narrrative notwithstanding, the events below haven't necessarily transpired in the author's life. That said, as with every work of fiction, some of the inspiration may very well have drawn from the autobiographical.

Oil and Water

For the life of me I cannot remember the reason why I went into the temple in the first place. I must have felt an urge for spiritual guidance of some sort, though I would hardly characterize myself as the type who relies upon such matters for sustenance. Regardless, the fact of the matter is that one morning I found myself heading for a small temple, squeezed in between a commercial bank and an electronics store, located in a not so quiet area of the city.

The roof of the temple had the usual multicolored intricate designs, as if a sculptor had been tasked with expressing the furies of a tempest in wood. Above the entrance, two dozen red lanterns were hanging on a wire. From the outside, one could already smell the burning incense.

The first thing that struck me as I entered the temple was how the interior resembled that of the Catholic churches that, as a child, my parents had forced me to go to. My few, unsuccessful attempts at refusing to pray to a deity in which I didn’t believe had invariably resulted in a series of stares from my mother, stares so cold as to chill the blood. I often wonder if my almost pathological aversion for all things religious might not perhaps have sprung from that period in my life.

But to return to the matter at hand—the resemblance lay mostly in the fact that instead of a series of thin mattresses one usually finds in a temple, the whole hall was filled with wooden pews and cushioned genuflectors, just as in a church. These contrasted with the decorations on the walls, which were indisputably Buddhist, consisting of the usual golden statues, flower arrangements, red lanterns and cherry wood carvings, all partly veiled by the incense fumes that sailed like specters as people moved about. A recording was playing faint Buddhist chants accompanied by dripping water. I chose the fifth row on the right side, preferring isolation to the otherwise crowded section on the left towards the back of the hall.

My suspicion that this was no traditional Buddhist temple was compounded by the appearance of the monk, who ostensibly would be our celebrant. His features—the big, potato-shaped head with the glisteningly sweaty forehead, red puffy cheeks, and the swine-like nose slightly pulled upwards—were anything but Asian. His corpulent stature made him look all the more ridiculous in the salmon-colored monk’s robe that he wore. (Months later, I learned from an article published in a local newspaper that the deceased, the reason for whose expiry was qualified as “suspicious,” was from the Canadian Prairies and had grown up on a ranch.)

The manner in which he held the Buddhist ceremony also didn’t quite ring true. Now by no means am I an expert on religious matters, but the way I had imagined how a Buddhist ceremony would go certainly did not involve a man making a sermon, in English, in a wireless microphone. But this is exactly what we were served, and looking round me at the predominantly Asian audience, I realized that they didn’t seem to have noticed how unorthodox the whole affair was. I’d often heard of how international the Asian metropolis had become, and how, under certain circumstances, Asian people would do their utmost to imitate things Western. If ever there was one, surely this was a display of this phenomenon being pushed to an extreme.
Five people were sitting on small stools behind the monk, their faces displaying the undeniable symptoms of deep enrapture.

The sermon, a thunderous and sporadically echoic affair, was an exercise in rhetorical convolution and syntactical contrivance. Its meaning, if there was one, slipped though my fingers like putty. Again, I cast a quick glance round me, and to my surprise people were nodding their heads, as if in approval of some truth. I seemed to be alone in my incapacity to access the man’s wisdom.

“Existence,” the voice boomed, “is not sufficient to satisfy the need for the light, for only the light, high above and deep inside, scintillating, provides the meaning of our existence.” Eventually, the rambling circularity of the monk’s confabulatory mantras had a soporific effect on me, and I fell into a half slumber. Perhaps, I thought as I sank into the quicksand at my feet, this was where the nodding came from.

When I woke up, the monk was agitatedly pointing a finger at the back of the room, and in a loud, enthusiastic voice, was inviting someone to come over on stage.

“This is splendid,” he was saying. “It doesn’t matter what you look like or what you’re wearing. Come over here and let us all take a good look at you!”

Moments later, the distinct sound of high heels echoed in the hall. I looked round, and for a while couldn’t locate the origin of the noise. Then, above the benches, I saw a blond head bobbing; as she cleared the aisle, her full body appeared. For a second or two I thought she was a child. Her dwarfishness—for even with the high-heeled boots she couldn’t have been more than four feet tall—added to her already absurd appearance. Her features were clearly Asian, but her hair was platinum blonde and she had applied such a liberal amount of mascara on her eyes that her face looked as if it consisted of two disproportionately large black eyes only. The knee-high boots were a bright yellow, with white laces, and ended at the hem of her flimsy white skirt. The denim blouse that she had on gave her a cowgirl air. As if the scene weren’t surreal enough already, people started whistling and cat-calling her as she hesitatingly tottered on stage. She blushed, but continued on until the monk caught her by the wrists and drew her to him.

“You see,” he exclaimed, “this is what I mean!” Grabbing her by the shoulders, he forced her, much like a kid, to face the crowd. People started applauding, and the woman hid her face in her hands. She seemed unsure whether she should smile or cry.

“In fact,” the monk continued, the applause tapering off, “in fact, nothing matters. This very moment, our friend here could go in there”—he pointed at the wall behind him, where, between two sitting Buddha statues, what looked like a gigantic laundry shoot trapdoor was set—“with these fine people behind me here”—his hand described a semicircle in front of the five people—“and we would not judge her.” The woman’s face appeared between her hands, and she looked at the monk with palpable apprehension.

“Now that I mention it,” he continued, “why don’t we just do that?” There were cheers from the crowd as the five individuals, three men and two women, stood up. One of them, I now realized, was a very tall and rather gaunt-looking Caucasian, with a generous forehead and gray frizzling hair behind the ears. Cowgirl, by now terrified, tried to leave the stage, but the monk seized her wrist before she could flee. She winced in pain and her feet swung in the air as he effortlessly lifted her off the ground. As if the whole scene had been rehearsed, the gaunt-looking Caucasian held the trapdoor open, and one by one the others jumped in. After that, the monk carried the squirming woman with one arm and, sacrifice-like, dropped her in. The gaunt man followed, his long limbs folding like a spider’s, and the trap closed behind him.

Grinning widely, the monk turned back to his worshippers. “Whatever happens in there—and you know what’s going to happen in there—doesn’t matter at all,” he crooned. The grin melted into a funeral earnestness, and the tone of his voice reflected the change, dropping by an octave. “It is like oil and water. Pour oil into water, and what do you end up with? Oily water. But they never mix,” he said, sagaciously. “They never become one.” His eyes had the distinctive quality of the blind, as if he were staring at something which was simultaneously distant and close by.

Confident that he had made his point, the monk turned off the microphone, dropped it on the floor, and headed towards the exit. All around me, people were silent, nodding to themselves as they pondered the deep truths that they had just partaken of. “They never mix!” his voice reverberated, as he walked out the door, robe billowing.

People began trickling out of the temple. I lingered on, trying to comprehend what had just transpired. After the last person had left the temple, I hurried over to the trapdoor and carefully opened it. I gazed inside. Darkness. Silence. There was no way to tell where the chute led, and I wasn’t about to jump in there to find out.

Once outside, I went round the temple, trying to establish where the trapdoor could have led. There was no annex to the building, only an uneven wall, thrown in the shadows, that curved slightly outwards at the bottom, where it disappeared into the thick foliage. So the chute must have led somewhere underneath the building, I thought. The hair at the back of my neck suddenly bristled, as if I were being watched. Something told me that I didn’t want to investigate any further.

I scampered off, only slowing down after I had put enough distance between me and the temple. As I was swallowed by the oblivious, uncaring reality of the bustling street, my thoughts turned to the puzzle of the oil and the water.

Friday, June 16, 2006

Dreaming of a United Nations Army

The idea has been floating around the halls of international academia for decades, and occasionally heads of state will try to reinvigorate the as-yet unachievable concept, usually after genocide or ethnic cleansing has been committed in some corner of the world. It has been given many names, but in essence, what these people are talking about is a United Nations army.

Says the author of A United Nations Emergency Peace Service: To Prevent Genocide and Crimes Against Humanity, which was released on Friday: "A U.N. [army] would for the first time in history offer a rapid, comprehensive, internationally legitimate response to crisis, enabling it to save hundreds of thousands of lives and billions of dollars through early and often preventive action."

In itself, the idea is a sound and desirable one. Far too often in recent memory, wars that in principle could have been avoided by a quick multinational intervention—Somalia, Rwanda and Sudan readily come as examples, but there are, sadly, many more—were allowed to rage on, due in part to institutional slowness, political procrastination, and lack of resources for stopgap regional force deployments. A U.N. army would, in theory, be deployable to any region within 48 hours, quickly enough to hold the dam before the furious waters crash through everything in their path.

Desirability aside, the concept of a multinational army raises some questions, to which responses will be required before any such force can become reality. For starters, who would be providing the soldiers? Would that army comprise mostly individuals from Third-World countries that, as they have in the past, hope to profit from their contribution? Or would rich countries like Canada, the United States, Great Britain, Japan and France make their own human investment—and if so, would this be at the detriment of current standing forces, which, in the case of Canada, for example, could create a force deficit back in the contributing countries? Far likelier, the rich countries would limit their contributions to dollars and materiel and keep their armies intact for the wars that, in the often ugly lens of geopolitics, "really matter."

Let us assume, so that I can make my second point, that the above hurdles have been successfully dealt with and that a U.N. army has been established. The next question is, which masters will it be serving, and who would be responsible for running it (remember, the U.N. is the sum of its part and not a unitary entity)? Many states fear that no matter whose soldiers make up the multinational body, the decision-makers will remain the wealthy powers in the West. If it is perceived that a U.N. army will be a tool of the West, countries in the rest of the world will unlikely decide to contribute their troops.

Thirdly, when the time comes for the U.N. army to be deployed to a war zone, what would the decision-making architecture look like? As, by design, every nation-state has its own interests, many of which are out of sync with that of others, how would a decision (whether to use force, for example) be made? Unless the chain of command is entirely independent from that of the constituent states (a highly unlikely scenario, as states will never willingly abandon their prerogative on the use of force), states will continue to put their interests before those of the multinational body, and reaching a decision will inevitably engender the debating, infighting, and bickering that are inherent to decision-making by committee. In the end, the very thing that a U.N. army is supposed to solve is defeated by its own makeup. Such is the nature of decision-making when the body itself is made of contending powers. One need only read about what went on inside the White House during the Cuban Missile Crisis to realize how difficult it is to take individual and institutional views into consideration, and to use those to make a decision. And remember: this was within one state alone, the U.S.!

A theoretical scenario should suffice to demonstrate the complexity of the matter. For this purpose, let's imagine that war breaks out in Korea. The key decision-making members of the U.N. army would feasibly be the regional powers: China, Japan, the United States, and maybe India, Germany, and Great Britain. It is difficult to imagine a scenario where the regional powers would choose not to participate. After all, the conflict is in their backyard and probably threatens their interests. (The soldiers themselves, however, would conceivably include troops from Bangladesh, Pakistan, India, along with contributions from certain African states, such as South Africa, and perhaps a few Scandinavians and East Europeans.) In light of the disparate constituent members of the decision-making body, it is highly unlikely that decisions would ever be reached seamlessly; instead, as a result of the members' own agendas, the situation room would be chaotic, with China on one side and Japan and the U.S. on the other. Moreover, even if all the logistical challenges of a force deployment were addressed (and this has historically rarely been the case), I strongly doubt that the actual deployment of the U.N. army would take place within 48 hours, for that very deployment would also send a political signal. The likelier scenario is one of a stalled deployment, with war in Korea allowed to continue without intervention by the U.N. force. To varying degrees, conflicts everywhere, whether they be on the African continent, in South East Asia or in South America, would give rise to the same problem of diverging interests.

Finally, once the soldiers are deployed, how will the difficulties arising from the fact that they all speak different languages and come from idiosyncratic cultural and military traditions be solved? This may seem innocuous enough a problem, but once the bullets start flying, efficient communication between units becomes a crucial tactical component.

Admittedly, I haven't read the book, and I don't know if the answers to the above questions are provided. I, for one, believe that a standing U.N. army has the potential to provide the international community with a much-needed tool to deal with the atrocity of armed conflict. But the task of making the leap from theory to practice is unquestionably a very daunting one. Beyond the assumed 2 billion dollars that would be required to set up a U.N. army and the tremendous task of finding enough soldiers and equipment to give it shape, the more substantive question—and the one that so far hasn't received much attention—is how we could make this new instrument work towards the achievement of peace.

Thursday, June 15, 2006

Curse Words and Arm Gestures

If recent events are any indication, it would seem that politicians in both the East and the West are beginning to take their jobs... just a little too seriously, and in the process, all outward forms of decency and politeness that one has come to expect from within the halls of politics are being thrown out the window.

While Quebec Conservative MP Jacques Gourde was busy making a rude gesture toward the opposition, which Tory MP Pierre Poilievre reciprocated in full view, mind you, Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) Chairman and current Taipei City mayor Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) was stating before the KMT Central Standing Committee that Taiwanese President Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁) would "die a horrible death" if he didn't step down immediately.

After the twain storms had abated, Ma apologized for making the remarks, noting that it was "improper" and "set a bad example for society," while the Canadian MP in question apologized if his gesture had been "misinterpreted." The last person I recall apologizing for a silly remark being "misinterpreted" was U.S. President George Bush, who contended that his infamous "bring it on" remark could have been misinterpreted (hmmm; I believe it was heard loud and clear, and the insurgent groups in Iraq certainly did act on that invitation).

What's going on with the people who supposedly lead us? As the Liberal Leader Bill Graham mentioned after the arm incident, such behavior "is an insult to our democracy and to the Canadian people who sent [them] here to do serious work." The readers of this page can make up their own mind as to which of the two unbecoming incidents, the bras d'honneur or the threat that someone would die a horrible death, is worst (it would be interesting to see what the reactions would be if the aforementioned slips were interchanged, with Graham, say, claiming that Harper would meet a terrible end if he didn't step down soon, but I digress).

I had promised myself that I would avoid touching on the issue of terrorism in today's posting, but strive as I might, I cannot avoid doing so. With all due respect, Mr. Graham, where was your indignation, your accusation of "an insult to democracy," when the Crown requested a publication ban on the trial of the Group of Seventeen (see entries below)? For all I (and probably the majority of Canadians) care, MPs can flick, filip and raise fingers, wave their arms, dance, mistake the now-famous bras d'honneur with the Italian salute, and pretty much shout whatever insult they want at each other, but please, please, try to maintain the priorities that we, as voting Canadians, have given you. I am all for politeness within the halls of power, but to raise a political storm on arm gestures days after the Opposition failed to provide even a modicum of resistance to a decision that truly represents a fundamental threat to our hard-won democracy? Now that is an insult.

Wednesday, June 14, 2006

Canada the Terrorist Hotbed

"We should at least show that we are willing to do everything we can to protect the U.S. against terrorists," writes former Globe and Mail bureau chief Anthony Westell in CBC News Viewpoint ( Attendant to this would be a certain loss of sovereignty, possibly a U.S.-led continental border command, and the presence of U.S. officers at Canadian ports. But according to Westell, all would be acceptable.

Why? Because the threat of terrorism is clear and present, and more than ever misinformed officials south of the border are referring to Canada as a hotbed of terrorism. Or because a terrorist attack on either side of the border would lead to that border shutting down, at great economic cost to Canada.

Westell is bang on when he states that the perceived threat emanating from Canada is pure nonsense, or that, ostensibly because of the recent arrest of the Group of Seventeen, Canada is no longer in a position to disabuse the U.S. of the view that Canada is some sort of Club Med for terrorists. There is no fault, either, with Westell's argument that lives lost notwithstanding, the principal victim of a terrorist attack occurring on Canadian soil would be economic.

Where my opinion differs from Westell's, however, is when he argues that irrespective of the U.S. misconceptions about Canada, we should accept a loss of sovereignty and demonstrate that we are willing participants in continental defense. Westell uses the threat of Soviet nuclear missiles pointing indiscriminately at the common North America "we" as a period in our history when we accepted to give away some of our sovereignty in the name of security, what with organizations such as NORAD. Unfortunately, this is a false analogy, as the nature of the threat was an altogether different, much likelier (through willful attack or accidental) one, and the consequences of an attack were orders of magnitude more severe. Numerous observers have used Cold War analogies and juxtaposed them with the current template, but that simply is academically irresponsible.

A self-respecting nation cannot allow another state's groundless fears, or that state's economic clout, to dictate how we are to behave within our borders. To give in would represent the abandonment of who we are and allow irrational, misinformed paranoids in the U.S. to determine a course of action that should be ours only to choose. This, in turn, would undoubtedly lead to harsher security measures in and around Canada and a further erosion of the foundations of the liberal democracy we have been building for many years. Under this new system, the Group of Seventeen, which for all intents and purposes is already being denied due process, would stand even less of a chance to a fair trial.

I am fully aware that international relations are as much about truth as they are about perception, mythmaking and illusion, but this in no way can justify the submission of a state to the bullying of another, however stronger the other might be. This isn't to say that Canada doesn't need to be vigilant in its immigration and security intelligence efforts—it most certainly has to, and it is blessed with enough intellectual and financial resources to do that. But whatever needs to be done, we can do without the abandonment of who we are.

Tuesday, June 13, 2006


Had this decision been made with the intent of ending wild media speculation on what may have been in store for Toronto and Ottawa, I would perhaps show some support. But the reasons why the Supreme Court has imposed a publication ban on the prosecution of the 17 terrorism suspects are, I'm afraid, more insidious. After feeding crumbs to the press for a little more than a week, the Crown has now decided that the proceedings should take place beyond the scrutiny of reporters, rights groups, the families of the accused, and the public. The reason given, as with all things secret, is the same old need to protect the sources—both domestic and foreign—whose information led to the arrests earlier this month.

Coming in the wake of Ottawa's ban on media coverage of the repatriation of soldiers killed in Afghanistan, I suspect that media speculation doesn't register very high on Ottawa's list of worries. In fact, for certain parties—namely CSIS and its overarching parent organization, Public Safety—wild speculation and sustained fear of the unknown is in their interest, as it provides the manna upon which they can sate their immense hunger for self-importance, and ensures that the money will keep pouring in, perhaps at a higher debit, even.

While this media ban continues a long tradition of secret courts and hearings, it is indicative of a dangerous trend emerging in Harper's Ottawa. The past weeks' events only seem to have given the authorities all they needed to unleash their mild totalitarian inclinations.

The institutions of power in Ottawa—and everywhere else, to be fair—are surrounded by walls. And nowhere are they thicker than around and within the security intelligence apparatus. Walls have long existed between the authorities and the public; thus the rulers and the ruled. But there are also walls between the authorities themselves—even within the organizations. There is an expression used in the trade for that modus operandi, and it's called "need to know." If someone decides that you don't need to know, you won't. Such secrecy serves its function, which is mostly to ensure that no one will ever be in a position to criticize someone else's work, from the desk officer all the way to the organization. What's worse, by limiting the number of people who have access to the information, this process leads to "groupthink," hereby, through a process of self-reinforcement, everybody in the group becomes unable to think outside the prevailing view.

Now, does anyone begin to wonder if this might not bode all too ominously for the suspects?

I fear that in the current instance, someone high up in Ottawa has decided that the public no longer needs to know what's going on. Nor do the defense lawyers, or the defendants themselves, for that matter. Given, as I have mentioned in previous postings, the high likelihood that errors of judgment and inference were committed by the officers who worked the case, this means that no one within Canada will be in a position to scrutinize the proceedings to ensure that these errors are heeded and taken into consideration. Absent an outside view, the unfortunate seventeen will be denied due process, and some of them will assuredly face sentences that, in theory, they should not be facing.

But, the readers might be inclined to counter, surely Court authorities—Canada's judicial system—have the means to review all the information that's being used as evidence against the suspects, and thereby correct any mistake that may have been committed. Unfortunately, from my own experience, this isn't the case. Vast amounts of information will be presented, and vast amounts will not. In reality, court officials only get to look at a case with one eye shut and therefore only see things in two dimensions. Furthermore, security officials and their lawyers are very good at shaping facts to fit the argument and at presenting a case in such a way as to make it unassailable. Remember the walls mentioned earlier? Such walls also exist between intelligence agencies and the court system.

The imposition of a publication ban is not only unacceptable and unconstitutional, but also represents a dangerous moral slide. Even in situations of seeming urgency (which in the present case is exactly what the authorities would like us to think), Canada's system shouldn't brook the legalized recourse to unlawful practices. The authorities cannot ride high on the fear created by the alleged plot only to endeavor, soon thereafter, to make the population conveniently forget about the individuals involved. If we allow those seventeen—along with the other individuals who are already incarcerated under Security Certificates—to be sucked into the impregnable fortress of secrecy, they'll lose the last vestige of hope that they will be treated fairly and humanly. Once that bridge has been blown (and this is exactly what the publication ban hopes to achieve), they become less than human. As history has amply demonstrated, nothing blunts the moral senses as the dehumanization of the other.

It happens in police states like Uzbekistan, where people are seized in the middle of the night and disappeared forever. It happens in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, where many al-Qaeda and Taliban suspects are held for extended periods of time. It happened in Abu Ghraib, where Iraqi insurgents were beaten, humiliated and tortured by American soldiers. And yes, surprising as it may seem, it happens in Canada.

Monday, June 12, 2006

A Far Greater Threat to Toronto

If what's in the offing is any indication, it seems that American tourists need reassuring, through a public concert, that Toronto is a safe place to visit. In the wake of the arrest earlier this month of 17 suspected terrorists in and around Toronto, the same people who were behind the massive SARS concert that brought the Rolling Stones to the city in 2003 have now come up with the brilliant idea for a ludicrously-named I Am Not Afraid event. Buttons bearing the same affirmation are also being prepared for brave Canadians (and hopefully brave American tourists as well) to wear.

One of the organizers admits to having been inspired by a website that had been launched days after the London bombings in July 2005. But wait—wasn't there an actual attack in London, with real bombs going off and real people being murdered? Why is it that every time the word "terror" is mentioned at home or abroad, Toronto feels the need to attract attention onto itself, as if it feared being left out among the world's would-be preferred targets for terrorists? After Madrid and London, Canadians were being hammered day in day out with stories about how a similar bombing would affect Toronto, or whether Toronto was safe, prepared, vulnerable, a target or not. Both the authorities and the media had a hand in this, needlessly exacerbating fears that the metropolis could be next. Given the hype (apparently it's cool to think of oneself as a potential target), I can half-expect someone at City Hall sending a postcard to Osama Bin Laden and friends in Afghanistan with a note reading something like "Dear Osama et al: what about us? Are we not important enough? We want to register, too. After all, as our tourism brochures and commercials incessantly inform the world, we're a world-class city. Didn't you know that we have the world's tallest free-standing building? Flip the postcard and you'll see it."

What about when, not so long ago, innocent bystanders in that very same city were being gunned down by various Toronto-based gangs? Where was the concert then, or the buttons, for that matter? Is imagined fear more powerful than the fear of something that truly exists?

The truth of the matter is, there was no attack in Toronto—and in fact, it's still far too soon to even hint that one might have been in the preparatory stage. Once again, panicky people are putting the cart before the horse, pretending to know more than the security agencies charged with determining the true nature of the threat, if a threat there was in the first place.

To me, this looks like an attempt on Toronto's part to cash in on the siege mentality that has existed in the U.S. since September 11, 2001. We're like you now, Toronto shouts across the border. Visit us—it's safe—but please come share the pain with us. We know what you feel like; we're one of you. Welcome home.

This moronic display of public fearlessness is also an affront to the cities of this world where terror is part of everyday life. Does anyone in Jerusalem, Bogotá, Baghdad, Kinshasa or Kabul, to give but a few examples from an alarmingly long list, feel this urge to demonstrate—by organizing concerts and wearing stupid buttons—that they're not afraid? Of course they're afraid, and for good reasons. But they go on, without a concert, and certainly without a button. How can a safe, advanced metropolis in a stable democracy like Canada ever presume to be in the same league as those cities? First things first, let's give the authorities enough time to determine if there indeed was a threat. In the meantime, we should all wear a button that says "I'm Not Afraid of Being Hit by a Car When I Jaywalk on Front Street." If we're to think in terms of probability, that's a much likelier threat to any resident of that city than anyone of the al-Qaeda persuasion, real or imagined, will ever represent. (Toronto Muslims facing acts of misdirected hatred, violence, and vandalism are also more threatened, for that matter.)

As the organizers of the concert start endeavoring to make us all feel safe, I suspect that the greatest threat to the City of Toronto isn't terrorism. It is plain stupidity.

Sunday, June 11, 2006

Is Canada Asking for a War of the Flea?

Canadian forces in Afghanistan are boring deeper into Taliban territory than they ever have since they entered the country. On Saturday, they opened a new base, called Forward Operating Base Martello, some 200 kilometers away from the main base in Kandahar. According to the official line, the base will allow Canadian soldiers to guard the main highway that links Kandahar to the province of Oruzgan.

This, I fear, is an error the likes of which have been repeated innumerable times since guerrilla warfare entered the military lexicon. Every manual on the tactic, from Robert Taber’s The War of the Flea to Mao Zedong’s On Guerrilla Warfare, points out that the more islands you garrison, the weaker the whole of your forces becomes. It’s simple mathematics: in order to open the new base, you need to take some soldiers and materiel from the main one. Absent compensatory forces or reinforcement, you inherently weaken the main base. Instead of having, say, 2,300 soldiers to defend Kandahar, you now have 1,800.

Additional problems arise in ensuring communication and the supply route linking the main base with the forward one. As it is located deep inside Taliban territory, that line will be subject to roadside bombings and various kinds of attacks. Furthermore, aside for inviting attacks against it, the new base will be difficult to protect. After a while, maintaining the new base becomes an objective in itself (like counting the number of white beads you have on the Go board against your opponent’s black), and this regardless of whether the base provides a tactical or strategic advantage. Should this occur, more troops and materiel will be taken from the main base, further weakening the latter until it, too, becomes vulnerable. Instead of having one strong base, you end up with two ill-defended ones.

Guerrilla warfare is about patience and opportunity. The Taliban can afford to be patient, and they’ll have all the time in the world to assail the new base until holding the fort becomes untenable, at which point the Canadian forces—what’s left of them—will depart, with little gained. This is how guerrilla groups have defeated larger, stronger and better organized armies for centuries: they overstretch their adversary, attack and cut the supply routes that hold the whole together, and whittle it down, piece by piece. The more you divide the whole of your forces, the weaker all its constituent parts become—not only quantitatively, but also in terms of having to defend the supply routes that link them all together.

Unless the main highway that links Kandahar to Oruzgan is of such operational value as to warrant the risk that Canadian soldiers are taking, I doubt that this adventure deep in Taliban territory is a sound decision. Already, if you take a step back from the map of Afghanistan, the Coalition deployment looks like what I have just described above: pockets of relative stability, like Kabul, the capital, and Kandahar, and the rest. In no way has Afghanistan been “liberated,” “pacified,” or “neutralized” since the fall of the Taliban in late 2001. In fact, so tenuous is the stability in the country that Hamid Karzai, the president of Afghanistan, is often derisively referred to as the president of Kabul.

I wonder why we would give the Taliban such an opportunity. Is Canada forgetting the spirit of the mandate under which its soldiers were deployed to Kandahar—as part of a Provincial Reconstruction Team, or PRT? Increasingly, Canada’s actions in Afghanistan have begun to look like war-making, in that we are taking the fight directly to the Taliban. I do agree that Afghanistan will never be stable (as is defined by the Western powers, that is) unless the Taliban are spent as a fighting and political force. However, if the eradication of insurgents is now part of Canada’s mandate in Afghanistan, Canadians should not only be informed of this by the Minister of National Defense and the Prime Minister, but they should also prepare themselves for more casualties. I am not convinced that Canadians are ready to digest the level of casualties that, if we base ourselves on statistics from previous guerrilla wars, from Cuba to Vietnam, will result from this change in tactics. If there is one aspect of warfare that the Canadian public is little acquainted with or emotionally prepared for, it is this.

And one last thing: if Canadian forces become more aggressive in their anti-Taliban activities, those who disagree with what Canada is doing in Afghanistan will have more reasons to extend the fight to another vast country: Canada.