Saturday, April 28, 2007

The forgotten Canadian

I would never have thought that writing an op-ed in the Taipei Times would result in my being interviewed, 12 hours after publication, by Voice of America in Washington. On April 27, 2007, I published a piece in the Taipei Times about Huseyin Celil, a Uighur Canadian who was sentenced to life in jail in China for allegedly being part of a terrorist organization. I argue that despite precedents set by the Canadian government, as in the Maher Arar case, Celil will soon be abandoned by the Canadian government because of trade considerations.

During my half-hour telephone interview with VOA, I argued that even if Canada were to adopt a proactive approach to dealing with abuses of human rights by Beijing — which in the worst case scenario might result in short-term losses of business contracts — the long-term consequences of taking action would be fairly limited, as trade has a tendency to adjust itself. In other words, and as MacLean's argues in its March 5, 2007, issue ("Go on, take a stand," pp. 30-1), whether Canada adopts a tough stance on human rights with Beijing or not has a negligible impact on bilateral trade. A such, I argued Canada need not undermine its ideals and credibility abroad in order to conduct business with China.

Readers can read the full article, titled "Why Celil doesn't stand a chance," by clicking here.

For those who can read Chinese, the Voice of America Web site published excerpts of my telephone interview during its April 27, 2007, (10:00am – 10:30am) broadcast, which you can access at

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Asking the wrong question

The Canadian Parliament yesterday turned down a motion, by 150 votes to 134, by the Liberal opposition requesting that Ottawa commit to a troop withdrawal from Afghanistan by 2009. While at first glance the request would appear sound to a majority of Canadians, further investigation shows that its genesis lies in the wrong principle. The question being asked by the Liberals — or the New Democrats, who demand an immediate withdrawal — as well as the majority of Canadians who are in favor of pulling troops from Kandahar Province is whether Canada can afford the rising cost in soldiers' lives (54 to date, along with one diplomat) and in monetary terms of what is ostensibly turning into an “open-ended” military commitment to Afghanistan.

This type of opposition to the war is reminiscent of that of the great majority of Americans who, in the 1960s and with increasing momentum in the 1970s, opposed the Vietnam War. Then, much as now in Canada, the opposition resulted from calculations that the war was being too costly.

Despite this seemingly “anti-war” opposition, it is flawed because of its fundamental lack of morality, which in turn results in the wrong question being asked. What peace activists in the US through the 1970s were asking, as are the Liberals today, is whether we can afford the cost of the war. They were not against war per se; rather, they were against how much it was costing Americans then, and Canadians today.

What is not being asked, what the opponents of the Canadian presence in Afghanistan have failed to put on the parliamentary agenda, therefore, is whether we should be there in the first place. In other words, is it moral for Canadian soldiers, initially deployed to assist in provincial reconstruction, to presently be engaged in a violent war against the Taliban and other insurgents, to be fighting alongside US and other NATO troops in the most volatile area of Afghanistan? Are we welcome there, or are we deceiving ourselves, just as the US did in Vietnam (and today in Iraq), into believing we are there as “liberators”? The paradigm — that we are there to do good, or that by being there we can do good — has very much been imposed from the top-down; in other words, the government, with the complicity of the mainstream media, has told Canadians what they should believe, and very little has happened since in terms of testing and, if need be, revisiting that assumption.

Sadly, now that the motion has been defeated, we are unlikely to hear much of this type of debate, and Canadian soldiers will continue to die, and kill (and hand over suspected Taliban prisoners to Afghan authorities without assurances that they will not be tortured, if we are to believe recent reports in the Globe and Mail), in a foreign land, for a purpose whose morality — the most important factor — has not been put into question, let alone debated on.

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

As expected

The history of public intellectuals facing personal attacks, and sometimes threats to their safety, is, sadly, a long one. Individuals, groups and sometimes entire states will turn to slander, lawsuits and at times persecution to silent those who, through their work, attempt to expose injustices that otherwise would remain hidden. Few subjects in recent years have so often given rise to this type of behavior than Israel’s occupation of Palestine.

It was with this in mind that I wrote my article “The insidious language of victimhood,” which appeared in the Taipei Times on April 18. I knew very well that by publishing an article critical of the Israeli military’s recourse to illegal methods — in this case using Palestinians as human shields — and putting my name on it would surely invite a type of attack that has become par with the course. Already, academics like Edward W. Said and Noam Chomsky, to name just a few, as well as reporters like Robert Fisk, are well known to have been slammed by Israel for their views on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. More so, on some occasions the state-owned Canadian Broadcasting Corporation was attacked by the Israeli lobby for being “skewed” after inviting Fisk to participate in a program or of being “one sided” or “anti-Semitic” when it provided reporting on Israeli atrocities in the Occupied Territories. This type of censorship, a negative response to an article or report meant to silence their authors, is what Chomsky and Edward Herman in their book Manufacturing Consent call “flak.”

So I received my first piece of “flak” yesterday, a letter sent to the Taipei Times’ Letters to the editor by a Taiwan-based Israeli. The editor, for reasons that should soon become apparent, chose not to publish it, and I will not reply to that person directly. I have nevertheless chosen to dissect it here, an exercise that should allow me to put my theories to the test. Aside from demonstrating that the writer’s arguments soon crumble upon scrutiny, responding to them gives me an opportunity to expand on some of the points I tried to make in my article.

As if often the case when flak is at play, the letter constitutes more of a personal attack than an argument resulting from solid research, and the writer oftentimes commits the very intellectual crimes he accuses his “opponent” of having committed (the so-called “one-sidedness). “There is no other way to describe the piece except as total rubbish,” the writer begins, in reference to my article, which he says was by a “writer.” Already, the writer's position of opposition is clear and furthermore the writer questions my abilities or professional skills by putting my title between quotation marks. I am not a writer, he writes. I am a “dupe.” (These types of remarks bear all the hallmarks of thought processes as part of a totalitarian state, of the type that I constantly encountered when I worked for an intelligence service.)

He then presses the matter by writing that readers “are not told of any expertise or relevant experience” on the issue that I write about, which he then argues explains why I was so easily deceived by the writings of Edward Said, a Palestinian. Aside from the fact that he also fails to mention any expertise of his own on the subject, readers here would know that I have a master’s degree in War Studies, which included a course on asymmetric warfare; a diploma in humanitarian assistance, where I met many aid workers who worked in the Occupied Territories; a diploma in peacekeeping; and that I worked for three years as an intelligence officer on the very issue of “Islamic terrorism,” including 14 months where I was in regular contact with Israeli intelligence officers. And yet the writer portrays me as a “gullible person” who “swallowed the rhetoric hook, line and sinker.” He then accuses me of being “oblivious” to the basic tenets of journalism, which hold that one should analyze both sides of a topic. In other words, the writer accuses me of bad journalism because he assumes I am only basing my assessment on Said’s work, which he erroneously says I quote in my article. The fact is, Said (and other “pro” Palestinians) constitutes only a small proportion of the enormous amount of reading I have done on the issue. During my graduate studies at the Royal Military College, most of the assigned readings on the Middle East came from think-tanks like the RAND Corporation, CSIS, the US Naval Institute, the CIA and other US centers attached to the defense and intelligence establishments — all hardly presenting material in favor of Palestinians. Moreover, in the more public sphere, I have also read, among others, Thomas Friedman, Shlomo Ben Ami and Fouad Ajami and many academic "specialists" on terrorism, such as Bruce Hoffmann and Walter Laqueur. Again, these tend to provide a view that is favorable to Israel. Lastly, as an intelligence officer, I read hundreds upon hundreds of classified reports, domestic and foreign, on the issue of Israel and its regional enemies and also spent more than a year writing threat assessments, as well as a Federal Court warrant against a Levant-based organization. Needless to say, not a single page written in the documents that I read while working there painted anything remotely close to a position favorable to Palestinians. In fact, such documents are paranoid in the extreme and see Palestinians as anythign but victims in the conflict. So the writer’s contention that my article — and the conclusions reached — were singly the result of my having been influenced by Said’s “propaganda” is invidious at best.

The writer, who cannot spend enough time blasting Said (a national past time, in some quarters), then writes that Said comes from a culture where “criticism of the Palestinians or any exoneration of Israel were tantamount to a death sentence.” Here, the writer seems to conveniently overlook the fact that throughout his life Said was attacked by both sides, as he spared neither. Not only did he never condone the use of Palestinian violence and the tactic of suicide bombings (as I do not), but he also relentlessly criticized the Palestinian authorities for their incompetence and corruption. The writer also fails to note that despite his origins, Said lived a long life in exile and was based in New York City, where he taught at Columbia University, thus making his “death sentence” argument a moot point.

The writer then argues that I should stick to “facts” and “logic” rather than appeal to the emotional. He takes issue when I write that throughout his life Said had “exposed the grave injustice done to Palestinians,” adding that I accept the “unproven premises” of Palestinians as victims and a media conspiracy to “conceal the truth” (his quotes, not mine). Sticking to facts for a moment, it is difficult to imagine anyone who has been alive in the past sixty years who could deny, based on facts, that the Palestinians have not been victims. Not only were they expelled from their homes, with millions to this day still living in atrocious conditions in refugee camps throughout the Middle East, but on a daily basis they are exposed to Israeli bombings, incursions, arrests without due process, disappearances, discrimination, long waits and searches are Israeli-created borders, and so on. To write that Palestinian is an unprovenpremise is nothing but morally repugnant.

After attacking me for my apparent lack of historical knowledge, the writer then questions my use of the term “illegal” to describe Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories. Leaving aside the amorality of the occupation and strictly sticking to legal matters, in terms of international law any territory gained by the use of force and held as such is illegal, which means that territory seized by Israel in the 1967 war it is holding illegally. Furthermore, by repressing an entire population because of a minority elements (Hamas, Palestinian Islamic Jihad, the Lebanese Hezbollah) who have turned to violent resistance, it is breaking the Geneva Convention. When it razes villages, destroys houses of suspected “militants” or terrorists, steals large quantities of potable water and uses carpet-bombing methods to arrest individuals suspected of involvement in “terrorism,” Israel is illegally occupying a people and illegally using force against them. These are the facts.

The one-sidedness of my argument, if we follow the author’s logic, is that I do not talk about Palestinian violence in my article. What he fails to understand, however, is that this is not the topic of my opinion piece, as I was focusing on the use of language to describe Israeli military action against Palestinians. Furthermore, every day people the world over are bombarded with images and news of Palestinians “terrorists” and “radicals” and “militants” and “extremists” attacking Israelis or, more recently, killing each other. Everybody is aware of that and there is no question that it does happen. What I did seek to expose, though, was that every time Israel uses force, it is depicted as self-defense or, for the more sardonically inclined among us, to liberate Palestinians, to save them from themselves, as it did in Lebanon in the 1980s (or the US did in Vietnam and Iraq, or the Soviet Union in Afghanistan). Moreover, my piece did not state that there is a “conspiracy” to hide the truth (otherwise I would not have used the term “insidious”), but rather an intellectual reflex, sometimes unconscious, to depict Israel as the victim no matter what it does. A Palestinian who calls for violence against Israel is depicted in the media as a radical or a terrorist. Why, then, won't an Israeli commander ordering the destruction of an entire neighborhood in Beirut, knowing fully well that doing so will kill countless civilians and achieve little of military significance, also be described in the media as a radical or an extremist (let alone a terrorist)? The only difference between the two is that he is part of a modern army equipped with modern weapons non-state groups like Hamas and Hezbollah could only dream of ever putting their hands on, and that for years his side has been depicted as the victim. As long as it is self-defense, it seems that it cannot be called a crime or an atrocity.

If, again, the writer of the letter wants facts, he should look at the cold numbers of victims in the numerous wars Israel has fought since its creation in 1948. In every one of them, the ratio has been somewhere around 1:10, the latter number being that of its enemies, thanks to overwhelming US military support, to the order of (what we know of) US$5 billion every year. In fact, so dedicated is the US to Israel that last week it was already announcing the resumption of sales of MK-84 "general purpose" cluster bomb munitions, worth US$65 million, to Jerusalem (3,500 of them, as per Israel's request), after a brief interruption in the wake of Israel’s illegal (yes, it is illegal as per international law) use of them in civilian areas in Lebanon, which resulted in a number of deaths and casualties after the hostilities had ended.

What the writer ultimately fails to recognize (because he is committing the very error of becoming emotional, as opposed to rational, on the issue), is that at no point do I state that Israel has no right to defend itself, nor do I ever refer to all Palestinians (or Hezbollah, with which I am quite familiar) as “peace-loving” (a cynical use by the author, in reference to the ungrateful Palestinians who turned down a peace offer that included a non-viable series of disconnected statelets that only a people facing a powerful military could ever be asked to contemplate, something else this so-called history savvy author conveniently omits). What I question is language that claims the Israeli military was “forced” (Associated Press) to turn to illegal tactics (the use of human shields, a crime of war) to conduct door-to-door operations in Palestinian territories. Having studied asymmetric warfare, I could be tempted to condone the recourse to suicide bombings as the result of an unequal armed conflict, in which one side has one of the world’s most powerful and modern military and the other has not air force, no navy, no helicopters, no cluster bombs but only small arms and home-made explosives. But I do not. I do not condone, nor do I support, the targeting of civilians by suicide bombers, or Hezbollah’s firing rockets at Israeli civilian positions. These are, without any question, illegal acts of war, as my previous writings have shown. From a tactical perspective, however, we can try to understand why Palestinian "militants" turn to such military uses, and it soon becomes evident that it would be suicidal for them to engage the Israeli military directly.

Hezbollah’s rocket attacks against Israel during Israel’s war in Lebanon last summer were illegal, and the reason I do not discuss these when, in my article, I refer to Israel’s use of cluster bombs is, again, because it is not the issue. My article was about the use of language to describe Israeli action. Just because it was using a modern military to “defend” itself (initially to free two Israeli soldiers who had been kidnapped by Hezbollah) doesn’t mean it could use its overwhelming military force to destroy a great deal of the Lebanese civilian infrastructure and kill more than a thousand civilians in the process, ten times more Lebanese — mostly civilians — than Israeli died in the conflict (mostly soldiers).

Finally, the writer attacks my conclusion, which he sardonically calls “brilliant,” that language that truly reflects reality is needed. Whether one agrees with my position is for the reader to decide. But a spade needs to be called a spade. If such language had been honestly used from the onset, perhaps there would have been more pressure on Washington — from within the US and at the international level — to stop it from launching a war against Iraq, ironically another war of “self-defense” and, post facto, when weapons of mass destruction were not discovered, to “liberate” the Iraqis, to save them from themselves. The same holds for Israel and Palestine. If Israeli actions were truly exposed for what they are, states that sell them modern military equipment would perhaps think twice. And the real victims — the Palestinians (this is not naïve use of propaganda but something that is based on facts and numbers and history) — would perhaps not feel as abandoned and wronged against as to believe that the only recourse left is to strap explosives against their waist and blow themselves up at a bus stop.

Saturday, April 21, 2007

Manicheans in Ottawa

Parallel to the ongoing debate in the US over troop withdrawal from Iraq, Ottawa has been going through a similar process, with the Liberal Party proposing a bill that calls for a definite withdrawal from southern Afghanistan in 2009. The Conservative government, however, has refused to say whether it will respect that deadline, with some party members saying that Canada has a duty to remain in Afghanistan until the job is done and that it should stand by the “war on terror” (the British government has endeavoured to ban the term “war on terror,” deeming it unconstructive; it seems, however, that Canada has yet to make that intellectual journey).

Using language that is disturbingly reminiscent of that of a famous (or infamous) president south of the border, chief government whip Jay Hill (Conservative) said that “in a fight against evil, there are no conditions for a withdrawal: you either win or you lose,” buttressing his argument by comparing Canada’s mission in Afghanistan to World War I and World War II.

Setting aside for the moment the altogether false analogies in Hill’s comparisons to the two world wars, his Manichean perspective on the mission in Afghanistan (and, it follows, in the “war on terrorism”) tells us that we are fighting “evil,” as restrictive a description of the enemy as is possible. This presupposes, as some elements within the Canadian government have argued for a while, that terrorists are apolitical and have no grievances, and in the Afghan case specifically, it bans the possibility that some, if not many, elements may not perceive NATO’s presence in their country as that of a benefactor or liberator, as was the case in Vietnam and certainly is the case in Iraq today. These elements are evil, pure and simple.

This point of view implies that these monsters cannot be reasoned with and that a diplomatic approach is impossible. The only solution, therefore, cannot but be a military one. And once a government has decided it cannot lose and has embarked on a purely military way to address the problem, “winning,” if we follow Hill’s logic (note that he fails to provide a definition of the sought end state), means exterminating every single individual who opposes Canada’s and NATO’s presence in Afghanistan, their country.

The problems facing Afghanistan are immense, perhaps intractable. From the little that Canadians are able to gather, progress in the country has been, at best, slow, and the so-called improvements in the quality of life of Afghans trumpeted by Ottawa (see, for example, the Provincial Reconstruction Team section on the Department of National Defense Web site at are not easily quantifiable, are certainly fragile, and could at times verge on propaganda (for example, DND says that 4.6 million refugees have returned to Afghanistan, but fails to mention if their quality of life and security upon returning has improved, if they have jobs and so on. Another example is the mention that the economy has tripled, without reference to distribution of wealth. Sixty thousand soldiers have been demobilized, we are told, but we do not know of these individuals have been given jobs in return. All that say that it is easy to throw numbers in such a way as to give the illusion of progress).

Ottawa must engage in a serious debate on whether it should remain committed to Afghanistan. But no matter what decision it ultimately makes, there should be no room for the Bush-like view of reality in terms of “good” and “evil.” The world just doesn’t work that way. Some — perhaps a lot — of people don’t want us there. Others have grievances resulting from a long history or brutal colonialism; others have lost loves ones — including innocent bystanders — on the receiving end of our guns. That anger, that hatred, doesn’t mean they are “evil.”

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

The insidious language of victimhood

News broke out last week that the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) had been using Palestinians as human shields when conducting operations in the Occupied Territories. While the practice had seemingly been used for quite a while, it took a brave human rights worker to capture it on film for the story to break out and to expose yet another IDF form of abuse. While the IDF breaking international humanitarian law is not exactly, beyond the story continues to be what I like to call the “insidious language of victimhood” in how the media covers Israeli, a longstanding practice that for 60 years now has portrayed every type of Israeli action — however inhumane — as that of the victim.

The Taipei Times published my article on the matter, titled “Victimhood and Media Rhetoric on Israeli Affairs,” in its April 18, 2007, issue. You can read it by clicking here.

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

The Wan-an air drill

Nothing serves to remind one that Taiwan faces the constant threat of a military attack than the Wan-an ("everything is safe") exercise, which once a year between 2:00PM and 2:30PM, brings the country to a standstill.

Such an exercise was held on Tuesday, whereupon, to the faint wail of air raid sirens, Taipei came to a quasi full stop. As a rule, people are told to stay put and vehicles must stop circulating, with police officers on almost every street corner ensuring the cooperation of the public. As per regulations, says the Taipei City Government Web site, people are instructed to seek shelter and all business activity must cease. People inside buildings — office, houses, schools — are to stay indoors, turn the lights off and shut the windows. The MRT stops operating above ground, but underground service continues uninterrupted. Individuals caught conducting business during the exercise can be fined NT$30,000 to NT$150,000 (C$1,000 to C$5,000).

Nevertheless — and perhaps as a sign that, despite signs to the contrary emanating out of China, the threat perception of Taiwanese seems to have diminished with time — some people did not respect the regulations and continued driving, and windowwashers were even seen going about their job on a building in downtown Taipei.

Still, as the drill proceeds, the usually bustling city turns eerily silent.

Events like these, regardless of the fact that they are but a simulation, confirm the reality to a country's citizens that the specter of armed conflict looms large. People who come from North America or who, like me, were born in Canada, probably will never have experienced a drill like the Wan-an, unless they grew up under the threat of nuclear annihilation during the Cold War. Despite the constant bombardment in the media of news — some hysterical, some more level-headed — about the Chinese military buildup (with a 17.8 percent increase in its budget this year) and the nearly 1,000 missiles Beijing is pointing at Taiwan, one tends to fall in the routine of daily life and forgets about the ever-present danger.

If it only serves one purpose, the drill is a stark reminder that things could go wrong, that the normal course of life could undergo a radical transformation in a matter of minutes, the time it would take for the People's Liberation Army's missiles to cross the Taiwan Strait. It makes one appreciate the value of peace even more and perhaps one a little more willing to seek ways to prevent such a scenario from becoming an horrific reality.

Sunday, April 01, 2007

The Threatened Democracy

A few weeks ago, the senior editor of the Features section at the Taipei Times asked me to write a review of a new book on the Taiwan Strait titled Taiwan: The Threatened Democracy, written by Bruce Herschensohn, a former adviser to US president Richard Nixon. Given that US arch conservatives from centers such as the Heritage Foundation and American Enterprise Institutes often appear in the Opinions section of the Times, and that Herschensohn falls on that side of the political spectrum, I jumped on the occasion to provide a counter to the usual arguments on Taiwan and China propounded by the American Right.

I find it unfortunate that the Right, rather than the liberal Left, has seized on the Taiwan “cause,” as it puts into question that group’s true motive for defending Taiwan’s right to exist as a free nation and makes one wonder if the “freedom” and “democracy” they purportedly defend are not in fact euphemism for regional hegemony in a bid to counter the Chinese “threat” the Right is so hysterically up in arms against.

The Left, so far largely silent on the issue, needs to start arguing in favor of Taiwan, which is what I hope to have begun by publishing the review.

Readers can access the full text of my review article by clicking here.