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What Happened This Weekend at the ISF, A View From the Press Room. Part 1.

Blog posts reflect the views of their authors.
When Cornwallis can't bear to watch, you know the proceedings must be an eyefull.
When Cornwallis can't bear to watch, you know the proceedings must be an eyefull.

My Weekend at the ISF.

Day 1: Mother Nature Spoils the Night.

Armed with a vague letter of introduction, I wander through the pouring rain into Halifax’s Second Annual International Security Forum, and up to the pre-registration desk. Somehow, the letter and an Ontario driver’s license bearing my semblance grant me access. I am given a press card, a program, and a biographical list of the scheduled speakers. The list reads like a who’s who of high ranking military brass from NATO and NATO-friendly countries. There are also American Senators, and members of the militarily-sympathetic academia and media spheres. There are over three hundred of these types in attendance.

I am quickly hurried off to the side of the main proceedings, into a poorly lit room, where I am expected to sit quietly and watch this gala event unfold on a closed circuit television. Peter McKay comes on the screen to cut the proverbial ribbon on the forum. He gushes adoration for the American contingent, who are currently grounded due to weather in Bangor, Maine. McKay promises a lavish lobster dinner and Halifax hospitality for all those in attendance. He also uses the word “normalicy”, which is not a word. My tummy grumbles from the single cookie and cup of tea I found at the press table.

We sit, and wait. Word arrives that the United States Congressional delegation are stuck in Maine for the night, so they will not be attending their highly anticipated open-panel discussion, entitled “Decoding the American Elections”.

This discussion is of vital importance, because the United States has just had its mid-term elections, which are in real need of decoding. Things to the south of us have taken a radical turn, with Republicans, many of them very new to this governing thing, grabbing back Congress, and the Democrats narrowly hanging onto their Senate majority. The Congressional delegation is supposed to shed light on what this new government means to American foreign policy, and specifically American military policy. As goes America, so goes NATO and its allies, and without clarification on where America is going, this conference is little more than an opportunity to eat Maritime lobster and hang out with Peter McKay. The Forum is like an animated body without the head attached, an engine stalled at the station without a conductor. Things are at a standstill.

In an effort to fill time, the organizers throw together a largely meaningless open panel discussion on something called “Forward Defence Revisited”. It proves to be as confusing and meaningless as the title suggests. I won’t bore you with the proceedings, but highlights included watching the Danish Minister of Defence play with two lego blocks in an effort to demonstrate Denmark’s comprehensive approach to dealing with insurgencies, and listening to moderator Jill Dougherty, CNN Foreign Correspondent, ask an Afghani Media Mogul if he believes that the media should be used as a “weapon of war”. Good Grief! 

Day 2. The Americans are Here!

 A break in the weather on Saturday morning means that the heavy hitters of the conference have arrived. I hesitate to say thankfully, but the American Senators, and Janet Napolitano, Secretary of Homeland Security, have touched down in Halifax. The delegation consists of Senators John McCain (R) from Arizona, Mark Udall (D) from Colorado, and Lyndsey Graham (R) from South Carolina. Canada’s own Minister of Defence, Peter McKay, is just happy to be in the room.

The first open-panel discussion of the day is the highly anticipated “Decoding the American Election.” The panel is made up of Udall and Graham, and political pundit Norman Ornstein. Susan Bonner, the Washington Correspondent from CBC news moderates. John McCain does not take part in the open-panel talk, and as Bonner dives in, it becomes clear why.

This panel is going to set the tone for the entire forum, and the rest of the room is understandably worried about the political and economic climate of a reeling America. The Yankee response needs to come out strong and decisive, and John McCain is looking his age. With a sleepless night spent at the Bangor Airport, his handlers clearly don’t want the old man flying off the handle a la Obama presidential debate. Udall and Graham are middle aged men, more able to shake off a night at the airport, apply some pancake foundation for the bright stage lights, and appear like they know what they're talking about.

Ornstein, spin-doctor extraordinaire, cuts to the heart of the matter, and notes that leading into last week’s mid-term election both Republicans and Democrats were suffering from low popularity across the board. There is general disillusionment among the American populace towards their elected officials. The outcome of the election is that the Republicans now control the American Congress, and the Democrats the Senate. A house split doesn’t happen often, and the American government is heading into largely uncharted territory. Ornstein warns that this could lead to standstills and an even greater public disaffection.     

The composition of this new Republican Party is also of real concern. Ornstein mentions that many of the Republicans just elected to office are first-timers. The newly elected “Tea Party” element of the Republican Party captured the minds and votes of unemployed and irate Americans across the country. They ran on a platform of “taking a meat axe” to government, and the question will be whether or not the Republicans can manage all these new “Rottweilers” within their ranks. An American public, angry at its government for letting it down, has elected an angry government, eager to cut off its own head. Things are looking bleak.

Senator Graham agrees, and is not enthused by the fact that there was a complete lack of debate on national security and foreign policy during the election. The American election was won and lost on one single issue; Economy. In no uncertain terms Graham says that he has no idea of what the foreign policy views of these new Republicans are, and encourages the press to ask them themselves.

Ever the Democratic optimist, Senator Udall mentions that many of the newly elected Senators are experienced legislators, who should be able to move the economy forward. If 300 to 400,000 new jobs a month can be created, Udall notes that the country will right itself. There is no mention on where those jobs are going to come from.

Ornstein then hits upon an important point. Many of the newly elected representatives ran on a platform of gutting government, and nothing more. This is dangerous rhetoric, because cutting government size, and spending, is not a clear path towards a healthy economy. In fact, it could lead to disastrous results, especially as it relates to foreign relations. Massive cuts to the foreign aid budget should be expected, and as the immortal Jimmy Cox once said, in 1923, “Nobody knows you when you’re down and out.” Get ready for an America lonely in its own playground.

Efforts have already been made in Congress to separate Israeli foreign aid from all other foreign aid, in order to save these earmarked funds from cuts. Without getting into all the reasons why, Israel is that one special friend that America can’t do without. Ornstein mentions that if America is not careful, this governmental slash and burn policy could usher in a new era of self-isolation, not seen since the 1920s and 30s. The difference is, in the 21st century the ability of other nations or groups to do harm to America is far greater.                                                          

All men agree that Barak Obama will be very vulnerable to challenge in this new political atmosphere, and that his first challenge will most probably come related to his Afghanistan policies, with which there is significant disaffection. Obama will now have to cater far more to the right, but cannot alienate his left by capitulating too heavily.

And with that, the tone is set for this 2nd Annual Halifax International Security Forum. The Congressional delegation cannot decode the American election. They are as unclear as you or I on what the current and near-future American foreign policy is. It may be isolationist. It may be more hawkish. All they can say is wait and see, wait and see. 

Of course, the vast majority of the wheelings and dealings of the ISF take place behind closed doors in late night sessions. Interventions, plans behind plans, behind even other plans, behind a smile for the camera, are probably going on even now. Documents are signed in disappearing ink, and promptly eaten by candlelight. Suitcases of money are being dropped off in train station lockers as we speak. I can only tell you what I saw, which was what I was supposed to see.

Stay tuned for the next installment, when the Americans clarify their stance on boogeyman du jour Iran, shed a dim light on future relations with the Chinese, and Janet Napolitano and Ehud Barak talk about the benefits of having a populace that polices itself!


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