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Waging war in Babylon: The Harper caper

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Stephen Harper in the Tar Sands

Hi ho, hi ho, it's off to war (in Iraq) we go. But … whatever for?

At the outset, let me say that this article is not about the how brutal or nefarious IS/ISIS/ISIL (Islamic State, or the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, or the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria) is, or the relative merits and demerits of going to war.

To be clear: It's unquestionably the case that the self-declared "Islamic State" (IS) is a heinous, thuggish, murderous, grotesque anachronism. In a region that has in recent years too often been poisoned by the actions of militant, fundamentalist, extremists, the Islamic State is amongst the most extreme. Their desire to return to something on the order of a seventh century caliphate  governed by the most fanatical interpretations of Sharia law, promulgated by the most retrograde Wahabist theology, is crystal clear, as are the litany of its war crimes, religious persecution, summary executions, brutal retributions, savage beheadings, and culture of violence against women.

Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant

It is a dreadful danger, first and foremost to the people living in the Middle East. It represents the farthest extreme of where the archaic, simplistic, illiterate, and unsound Wahabist and Salafist  movement -- bankrolled by Saudi and Qatari sheiks and emirs engorged on the astronomical oil revenues of the past half-century -- has gone. This Wahabist/Salafist movement represents a collision between medievalism and modernity that threatens -- first and foremost -- to devour the ordinary citizens of the Middle East -- and its profligate supporters and funders -- with equal appetite.  It is in the interest of the states of the region -- Turkey, Iran, Jordan, Kurdistan, Iraq, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates -- all of whom are concerned by the Islamic State -- to organize and take action themselves.

However, this article is not about that.

Lending Support

Iraqi KurdistanIt is also not about the complex and highly important issue of how we in the West can assist those in the Middle East who are legitimately trying to build societies that reject such barbaric, medieval thinking and instead seek to build institutions and structures that legitimately serve the needs and desires of the people of the region.

For example, the remarkable and resilient people of Iraqi Kurdistan, who against all odds, and surrounded by suspicion, hostility, and instability, have in the past twenty years created a parliamentary democracy with a functioning economy, a respect for minorities, and a civil administration that works effectively and delivers services. It's certainly not perfect, but it is a quantum step ahead of its past under Saddam Hussein, and that of many of its neighbours.

Hassan RouhaniOr the many moderate people of Iran, striving to build a modern, secular, state in their country, now with a visionary political moderate, Hassan Rouhani, as president: a politician who encourages personal freedoms and access to information, seeks political reforms, has improved the situation for women in the country, wants to introduce a civil rights charter, and has dramatically improved Iran's foreign relations with many western nations. The Persian theocracy has a long way to go before it becomes a democracy, but there are signs of hope.

How we help the democratic, peace-seeking, moderate people of the Middle East achieve something like normalcy and civil society is a huge and complex issue, and not one that is necessarily well or effectively served by sending in military advisors and CF-18 fighter aircraft.

However, this article is not about that.

Sikes-Picot and the Legacy of the Great Game 

This article is also not about how the world arrived at this point. The "great game" played for centuries by the British, Russian, and Ottoman Empires, France and others -- and later by the United States -- throughout the Middle East. This imperialist 'game' which saw the Middle East as yet another part of the world to be shamelessly carved up according to western interests. A 'game' in which imperial powers played one Middle Eastern tribe, ethnic group, nationality, or region against another with empty promises and shallow commitments that were pulled from under their feet like oriental carpets, as whims in Whitehall, Washington, Paris, St. Petersburg, or Istanbul changed.  

Sikes-Picot Agreement MapOr the blithe and cavalier abandon with which Britain, France, and Russia simply carved up the disintegrating Ottoman Empire with the Sykes-Picot Agreement of 1915-1916, creating -- ex nihilo -- the states of Jordan, Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon, entirely to serve the political interests of the imperial powers, and entirely without consultation or due regard to the people who actually lived there and had done so for millennia. This may have been an entertaining 'game' in the corridors of power of the western nations, but the consequences of this gamesmanship were hardly diverting or amusing for the millions of people who had to live with the consequences of such arbitrary divisions fabricated at the behest of occupying powers, and later the often ruthless and corrupt 'leaders' who exploited the divisions, animosities, and instability to take control of these concocted states for their own enrichment and grandiose dreams.

It's no at exaggeration to say that many of the current troubles in this region are offspring of two centuries of Middle Eastern manipulation coming home to roost with a vengence.

However, this article is not about that either.

This article is about why Canada is going to war in Iraq.

Keystone XL

The war that Stephen Harper is about to embark Canada on, has very little to do with any of the above concerns, and everything to do with a final, desperate ploy to have the Obama Administration green-light the Keystone XL pipeline proposal.

CF-18No one can possibly imagine that the six CF-18 fighter jets, one CC-150 Polaris refueling aircraft, two CP-140 Aurora surveillance planes, and one airlift transport aircraft and 26 military advisors (potentially increasing to the astronomical number of 69) will make an iota of difference in terms of prosecuting the American-lead mission to bomb the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. The United States, Australia, Great Britain, Denmark, France, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates -- who have all sent combat aircraft -- and Albania, Belgium, Bulgaria, Czech Republic, Estonia, Germany, Hungary, Italy, Netherlands, Norway and Turkey -- all of whom are contributing to the mission in various other ways -- have dramatically more to offer in terms of military hardware, troops, intelligence, on-the-ground infrastructure, logistical support, and money.

Despite Stephen Harper's assertion that, "We do not stand on the sidelines and watch. We do our part. That’s always been how this country has handled its international responsibilities, and as long as I’m Prime Minister that’s what we will continue to do," or Foreign Affair's Minister John Baird's declaration that, "Canada heeds the call, Canada protects the vulnerable. Canada challenges the aggressor," Canada's involvement in this campaign has no military significance. What it does have (or at least so Stephen Harper hopes) is important symbolic significance: Canada standing prominently at the side of the United States as the Obama Administration seeks political cover for this mission that is mandated by neither the United Nations, nor NATO, nor the European Union, nor under any other formal multilateral framework.

A year out from the 2015 federal election, and with all political parties already on pre-electoral footing, the fortunes of Harper Government are now in steep decline. The latest Ekos polling results show the Conservatives with 24.9 per cent support of Canadians, down from the 39.6 per cent who voted for them in the 2011 federal election. Over a third of their supporters have abandoned them and the trend line is continuing down to third party status.

Ekos Polling Results October 2014

At the heart of the Harper enterprise is tar -- bitumen, to be more precise. The exploitation of the tar sands of northern Alberta. Harper has been ready to sacrifice everything else -- from the manufacturing sectors of Ontario and Quebec, to the ecological integrity of the lakes and rivers of Canada; from the fragile coastline of British Columbia to our Kyoto Protocol commitments; from Canada's reputation as an environmental leader, to our scientific infrastructure -- all in pursuit of this carbon chimera. It's all about tar. Turning Canada into a petro-state, complete with petro-currency, petro-people, and Dutch Disease is the gleaming pinnacle of the Harper vision. (For further information see: Carbon attacks: The Harper Conservatives and the Canadian resource economy -- Part 3, and Dutch Disease denial: Inflation, politics and tar.)

Price of Brent CrudeNot only is the Harper brand in decline, so, too is the price of oil. North Sea Brent crude (the international price) has declined from $115/barrel in June 2014 to as low as $88.18/barrel before recovering to $91.01 at the end of the week (all prices in US dollars). No one knows with certainty what the future will bring, oil prices being extremely volatile and subject to a myriad of influences, however, there are plausible scenarios that see prices falling to $70 and staying under $75 for years.

There are many factors responsible for this decline, not least of which are the enormous increases in light, tight oil production in the Bakken oil shale formation of North Dakota and from deposits in southern Texas, liberated by high-intensity fracking (hydraulic fracturing). This oil is plentiful, cheap, and easy to refine. 

[Note: Thus far intensive fracking has been largely confined to the United States, however, Russia, Mexico, and Argentina are all anxious to follow in the footsteps of the US and are preparing fracking programs. (For a discussion of the environmental problems associated with fracking see: Frackas in Elsipogtog).]

Alberta Tar SandsThe operative word is cheap. Extracting and refining bitumen sands is expensive, wasteful, and dirty. At prices less than $100 per barrel, new bitumen mining projects become economically uninteresting. Even the Steam-Assisted Gravity Drainage (SAGD) technology, which is becoming ever more important in the Alberta Tar Sands, needs prices in excess of $85 per barrel to attract investment. At $75 per barrel there is no profit to be made. At this price the Alberta Tar Sands juggernaut would stop in its tracks. [In contrast, the exploitation of "tight" oil shale deposits through fracking remains profitable even at prices of $50 to $65 per barrel, depending on the deposit.] And even at $85 per barrel there will be little interest in investing in new projects so long as the capacity to drain Alberta dry using pipelines that connect the tar sand enterprises to so-called "tidewater" (i.e., an ocean edge where tankers can then ship it off for burning at some foreign destination) are not in place.

Hence the Harper Conservatives desperate flailing to force a pipeline -- any pipeline -- down the throats of Canadians. It's a frantic, apocalyptic vision that flies in the face of everything that we know about the critical imperative of greatly reducing our use of carbon fuels in order to stave off runaway climate change (for further information see: Loaded dice in the climate change casino), whose destructive consequences would certainly be many orders of magnitude costlier than the pitifully small royalties that the Alberta government receives for this reckless plunder. The province charges oil companies a pitiful one per cent royalty on tar sands revenues until they recoup all their investments; thereafter a 25 per cent royalty rate kicks in. The Alberta government's share of all oil revenues is only 39 per cent compared to the 76 per cent that Norway collects. It is truly case that the Alberta government cannot be undersold.

Let the Dibit Flow

Which brings us to Stephen Harper's antic in Iraq.

Alberta Tar SandsFacing enormous opposition from Aboriginal groups and environmentalists to Enbridge's Northern Gateway pipeline (66 First Nations bands have already declared their opposition to the project), which would take dilbit (diluted bitumen) across the Rocky Mountains from Alberta to the coast of British Columbia; a constitutional legal challenge by ForestEthics and landowners, businesses, academics, and environmentalists to Kinder Morgan's proposed Trans Mountain pipeline expansion from Alberta to Burnaby, BC; and equally stiff environmental resistance to TransCanada Corp's proposal for an Energy East pipeline from Alberta through Ontario and Quebec to Saint John, New Brunswick (which would involve a controversial decision to reverse the flow and increase the capacity of the aging Line 9 pipeline), Harper's last great hope to breach the dam of opposition to the dramatic escalation of fossil fuel exploitation -- to let the dilbit flow -- is Keystone XL. This proposal (Phase 4 of the Keystone pipeline system) is for a vast new pipeline section running from Hardisty, Alberta through Baker, Montana to Steele City, Nebraska which would let Alberta tar sands bitumen arrive at the fabled tidewater on the Gulf coast of Texas -- and from there limitless global coastlines beckon.

Keystone XL protests

Pipeline over RiverThis has been a highly controversial proposal, both in Canada and the United States. The thumb's up or down signal has been repeatedly delayed by President Barak Obama as a result of the highly charged debate. In the United States, the proposal has little to recommend it. It would run for 1,897 kilometers (1,179 miles) across the American Midwest over the Northern High Plains Aquifer (including the Ogallala formation), a critical freshwater supply for the vast agricultural regions of the Midwest, with almost limitless possibilities for spillage. Dilbit -- bitumen diluted with petroleum condensates -- can be both toxic and flammable (the condensates) and also viscous, tarry, and exceeding hard to clean up (the bitumen) -- the worst of both worlds when it comes to oil spills.

Despite the efforts of the ludicrous and oxymoronic 'Ethical Oil' campaign to 'brand' Alberta Tar Sands oil as ethically superior to that from other sources, there is nothing environmentally ethical about bitumen. Moreover, it contributes not an whit to American oil security, where oil production is booming as a result of fracking (see above). Moreover it is almost entirely destined for export from the United States to other markets (the fuel hungry Far East including China are the prime focus of this initiative), and would result in only minor job creation in the refineries of the Gulf Coast States (Texas and Louisiana), which already have an ample supply of oil from domestic American production.

Moreover, the recent emphasis of President Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry on taking decisive action in regard to climate change would be subject to scorn and ridicule if Keystone XL were to proceed. In addressing the United Nations Climate Summit (which Canadian Prime Minister, Stephen Harper, skipped attending even though he was in New York at the time) on September 23, 2014, President Obama said:

US President Barak Obama"For all the immediate challenges that we gather to address this week -- terrorism, instability, inequality, disease -- there’s one issue that will define the contours of this century more dramatically than any other, and that is the urgent and growing threat of a changing climate. We have to answer the call.  We know what we have to do to avoid irreparable harm.  We have to cut carbon pollution in our own countries to prevent the worst effects of climate change.  We have to adapt to the impacts that, unfortunately, we can no longer avoid.  And we have to work together as a global community to tackle this global threat before it is too late. We cannot condemn our children, and their children, to a future that is beyond their capacity to repair."

Thus, understandably, with few upsides, and prominent downsides, the Obama Administration has regarded the Keystone XL proposal with considerable skepticism, and has repeatedly delayed making a decision on it. The expectation is that after the US mid-term elections are out of the way in November 2014 -- and with them, any possibility of Keystone XL having a domestic electoral impact -- that the Obama Administration will announce a decision on project. Whether this comes to pass, we can only wait and see.

Send in the CF-18s

In any event, in my estimation, the Harper decision to go to war in Iraq appears to be a last, desperate attempt on the part of the Conservative government to sway the American administration. Harper's repeated attempts to push the Obama Administration on the issue saying that he "wouldn't take no for an answer" and that its approval was a "no-brainer", and the utterly idiotic Ethical Oil campaign  -- have all failed to bear oily fruit. The final gambit is to stand tall as faithful supporters of the United States government, putting our troops on the line together with those of the Americans, and hope that this loyalty will be rewarded with a favourable decision on Keystone XL.

Prime Minister Lester PearsonGoing to war to promote an economic agenda may not be an unusual event on the international stage, but it does mark a nadir for Canadian foreign policy, which since the time of Lester Pearson, and the leadership he displayed in the resolution of the Suez Crisis in 1956 (for which he received the Nobel Peace prize), has emphasized international diplomacy and peace keeping. Indeed, since 1960 Canada has participated in 33 United Nations peacekeeping missions.

Oil interests played a major role in the Iran-Iraq War (1980-1988), the Gulf War (1990-1991), and the Iraq War (2003-2011), and now oil interests -- in both Canada and the Persian Gulf -- are yet again rearing their noxious heads. It is increasingly clear, both from geopolitical and environmental perspectives, that this former "black gold" has instead become a carbon-infused "black death" -- destabilizing regions, distorting the global economy, and threatening to destroy the global climate. Rather than relying on toxic and lethal oil to power our civilization, it's time we turned to sun and wind and water. 

Code of HammurabiThe Middle East is an extraordinary, diverse, complex, and tragic part of the world. Its people do not deserve the depredations of despots such as Saddam Hussein or Bashar al-Assad any more than they deserve the depredations of ISIL and its self-proclaimed caliph, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. The ancient Babylonian Empire at the heart of contemporary Iraq was founded by Hammurabi (~1750 BC), renowned for all time as a peaceful healer and the author of the Code of Hammurabi. This is a legacy of peace, law, and order upon which the people of the Middle East can draw. They deserve our help, the least we can do to help atone for the callous disregard of Sikes-Picot and two centuries of exploitation.

However, in large measure, it is they who have to take the decisions that will lead to change. Corruption, nepotism, extremist ideology, profligate waste of petro dollars, medieval thinking, oppression of women, internecine ethnic and religious strife, the trafficking of arms, and black marketeering -- on the part of corrupt sheiks and emirs, or the foot soldiers of ISIL -- will continue the problems and deepen the morass.  As NDP leader Thomas Mulcair said, "The struggle in Iraq and Syria will end by helping the people of Iraq and Syria build the political, institutional and security capabilities they need to oppose [the Islamic State] themselves."

Using a domestic economic issue -- the exploitation of the tar sands -- as a pretext to send a nation to war is a disservice to the citizens of both Iraq and Canada.  Rather than going to war in Iraq, Canadians should be sending the instruments of peace abroad, and laying the foundations of environmental sustainability at home.

Christopher Majka is an ecologist, environmentalist, policy analyst, and writer. He is the director of Natural History Resources and Democracy: Vox Populi.

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