what i'm reading: holding the bully's coat, by linda mcquaig

I started and finished Holding the Bully's Coat - Canada and the U.S. Empire by Linda McQuaig without finding a chance to blog about it, so here goes.

This is a very interesting and, I think, important book. For anyone interested in modern Canadian history and current Canadian foreign policy, especially as it relates to the United States, it's a very worthwhile read. Even people who are well versed in Canadian history and politics may learn a few things, and to someone like me who is just catching up, it was fascinating.

As you may recall, I've been put off by much of the rhetoric and (what I see as) scare-mongering put out by the No Deep Integration movement - talk of secret agendas, superhighways that supposedly threaten sovereignty, and so forth. It's not that I would ever support Deep Integration; it's that no one has been able to show me there is an actual threat.

Holding the Bully's Coat has helped me understand this from a different angle: it's not so much the end of Canada, the country, that we need to worry about, as it is Canada charting its own course of foreign policy, rather than tagging along with the United States. Do we want to spend our taxes on building a healthier and more just society, or do we want to help the US bully the world, while increasing the profits of US-based military industries? Do we want a foreign policy that emphasizes international cooperation and peacekeeping, or one that supports aggression and empire?

McQuaig also confirms my understanding that, when it comes to foreign policy, the Liberals have not been very different than the current Conservative government. Liberal supporters who were so horrified by the Conservative's election would do well to pressure their preferred party to get out of bed with the US, too.

The book gives a good overview of Canada's international role since the second World War, the birth of peacekeeping, and when Canada's military stopped being used for peacekeeping and started taking on more aggressive stance that neatly dovetails with US priorities.

Much of Holding the Bully's Coat is about the illegality, immorality and brutality of US foreign policy, with an eye towards how Canadian foreign policy often helps support it. McQuaig shows how how media figures, academics and business leaders perpetuate the idea that Canada is better served by aligning itself with the US and imitating its model - huge military spending, unchecked energy consumption, plutocracy, unaddressed gross social inequality - than by adopting a European model of international cooperation, social spending, attempts to ameliorate social inequality, and peacekeeping.

As always, there is a profit motive behind this alignment. Of course that is seldom shown to the Canadian public. A war - or mission, as the Canadian euphemism goes - needs a loftier justification, like democracy, freedom, liberation, and so forth. But we know that war is seldom about such ideals. And now, there is another layer of justification for Canadian military involvement.
Although the plight of Afghan women has been a major selling point for the war, there has also been a determined effort by the Canadian defence establishment to deftly move the focus away from soft, humanitarian considerations - like helping desperate women - to more geopolitical purposes, like fighting terrorism. Thus, [military historian] Jack Granatstein declares: "The war on terror is a reality and Canadians are targets, no matter how we try to convince ourselves that the world loves us. It doesn't." The attempt is to make Canadians feel at risk of terrorist attacks, simply for being part of the Western world, and to erase the connection between terrorist attacks on the U.S. and the U.S.'s history of military intervention in that part of the world.

Of course, Canada could well be the victim of terrorism. Canadians were stunned by the arrests of seventeen young Canadian Muslims in June 2006, on charges of plotting terrorist attacks in Canada. It's difficult to know what to make of these alleged plots, which seem to have been at least partly encouraged by undercover government agents. Let's just note at this point that the charges have not yet been proven in court.

[Ed note: let's also note that no evidence was ever presented to the US public about the terrorists attacks there. We're supposed to take those liars' word for it about how it all went down. Back to McQuaig.]

It should also be noted that Canada's past insulation from terrorist attacks is almost certainly connected to the fact that we haven't provoked rage abroad as the U.S. has - or as Britain and Spain did with their support for the U.S invasion of Iraq. Our insulation, of course, could change as we get more fully on board with the U.S. "war on terror." Granatstein's assertion that the world doesn't love Canada - whether true or not - could well become a self-fulfilling prophecy if we behave aggressively in the world or connect ourselves directly with the aggressive actions of others.

In the summer of 2005, Canadian major general Andrew Leslie explained why the war in Afghanistan will be long - because, he said, "every time you kill an angry young man overseas, you're creating fifteen more who will come after you." This might seem like a good reason not to go over there and kill angry young men.

Granatsein goes on to hint at what is more likely the real purpose of our venture in Afghanistan: to please the United States. "Our superpower neighbour, the nation to which 87 per cent of our exports go and on which our security depends, has been attacked and is still under threat, but somehow Canadians have not grasped that they are involved. We are." Similary, Sean Maloney, a professor at the Royal Military College in Kingston, suggested in an article in The Walrus that "the thinking [in Ottawa] may be that we will finally resolve the softwood lumber issue and keep our border open to trade by lessening America's burden in Afghanistan."

Now hold it a minute. How did the softwood lumber issue and the fact that 87 per cent of our exports go to the U.S. creep into a discussion of our military involvement in Afghanistan? Is it concern about our trade balance that compels us into battle? This might come as a surprise to Canadian soldiers fighting over there, hyped up on a message of the life-and-death imporatance of their mission, on the need to help the desperate people of Afghanistan and rid the world of terrorists. Is it actually increased profit margins for the Canadian lumber industry that they're risking their lives for? This focus on the Canada-U.S. trading relationship also raises an interesting question: does the fact that Canada has extensive trade ties and common security arrangements with the U.S. oblige us to join in the US's wars?

Advocates of closer economic and military ties with the U.S. have always denied that such ties infringe on our sovereignty. So why are these ties even being raised here? Do these ties restrict our freedom of action, oblige us to participate in America's wars, or don't they? If they do, this would seem to be a compelling argument for loosening these ties, for developing more independent economic and military policies, in order to free ourselves of such obligations. If they don't, they shouldn't be part of a discussion about the purpose of our missison in Afghanistan.

The possibility that we are in Afghanistan to curry favour with Washington - to help make up for the fact that we sat out the Iraq war - is disturbing, and not just because it suggests a colonial mentality. It also suggests that, for the sake of enhancing our leverage in a trade relationship, we are willing to participate in a war to which we are not connected, and in which there is no evidence that we are making anything better in that country and very possibly making things worse. It suggests that in order to smooth relations with Washington, we are killing people in Afghanistan and handing others over to torture.

McQuaig writes about the Canadian defence industry, and its behind-the-scenes pressure to move the military away from priorities of peacekeeping and internationalism, towards an aggressive, US-based orientation.
All this suggests the rise of a mini Canadian military-industrial complex. The Canadian defence industry is actually relatively small. There are some 1,500 companies involved to some extent in arms production, mostly in building components for US weapons systems. A handful of these companies - including CAE, General Dynamics and Bombardier - dominate the industry and get the lion's share of Canada's military contracts. Altogether, the industry generates revenues in the range of $7 billion a year. But its influence is multiplied well beyond this by its close cooperation with the Canadian military, as well as with prominent military-funded think tanks. The result is an influential bloc promoting ever-greater government spending on the military.

The development of a strong defence economy can have important consequences, creating a dynamic for an ever-expanding military. If the number of companies - and citizens - involved in weapons production and the military is significant, they become a potent force politically, pushing for ever more military expansion. Once the nation's economic growth becomes closely tied to military spending, that creates a pressure for ever more military spending, to keep the economy buoyant. This economic dynamic, sometimes called "military Keynesianism," means that the nation's economic well-being becomes integrally connected to high levels of military spending. When this happens, military spending takes on a life of its own, disconnected from the country's actual military needs. What happens if the military threat to the nation declines? The military budget won't necessarily decline, because that would threaten the interests of a sizable sector of the economy - a sector that will use its considerable political clout to prevent a spending reduction.

[Thus when the Soviet Union collapsed, eliminating the decades-long justification for massive military spending in the US, the citizens of the US never benefited from that elusive "peace dividend". Instead, a new enemy was presented to us. Exit communism, enter terrorism. For more on this, see the movie "Why We Fight".]

Helping the US militarily isn't the only way that Canada "holds the bully's coat". McQuaig points to Canada's often obstructionist environmental policies - on the Kyoto Protocols, the export of asbestos, bottom trawling, the human right to clean water and of course on the oil sands. Did you know Canada continues to be one of the world's leading exporters of asbestos, a deadly toxin, with almost all of its exports going to developing countries, where standards for use are poor or not enforced? Every member of the European Union and Australia support adding asbestos to the treaties that restrict trade in toxic substances. Canada continues to lobby against the ban.

And again, it doesn't appear that the Conservatives are very different than the Liberals on these issues. Whether or not the next Liberal government will reverse that trend remains to be seen, but so far, Liberal policies on the environment have been window dressing, inaction, or obstruction.

Tomorrow, I will post a lengthy, stand-alone excerpt from Holding the Bully's Coat, about war and its abolition.

I'm now reading Stephen Kinzer's Overthrow - America's Century of Regime Change, often recommended by wmtc readers. I've just started it and am already completely engrossed.

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