Monday, December 28, 2009

Where is Harper taking us? And why is Lewis MacKenzie helping?

Lewis Mackenzie is widely considered to be a Canadian military hero, having been decorated for his meritorious service in keeping the Sarajevo airport open to humanitarian aid as Serb militias shelled the city. He is a member of the Order of Canada, and is widely seen as a national icon. For those who have followed his career, however, the meritoriousness of his conduct has not always been so clear.

Ever since Richard Colvin's testimony to the Commons Committee on the mission in Afghanistan, the Konservatives have been revving their propaganda machine into full gear, summoning every minion they have in the media (and they have many) to deny, obfuscate, and deflect any query for information that might verify Colvin's main revelation: that Canadian soldiers knowingly delivered their captives into torture.

Colvin himself is not a "whistleblower" - he did not take his information to the media. He was invited to testify to the committee, and so he did. As Scott Taylor wrote over at Embassy Magazine:

On the other side of the playing field, the Conservatives claim there was no foul committed by them against diplomat Richard Colvin, even when the game tape clearly shows them—and their appointed cheerleaders—mercilessly putting the boots to him. It was Colvin who first began sounding the alarm bell of possible detainee abuse in Afghanistan in 2006.

Once Colvin testified before the parliamentary committee, alleging that military brass and political leadership had ignored his warnings, the gloves came off and knives were drawn. First into the fray were Defence Minister MacKay and his loyal parliamentary secretary, Laurie Hawn, who both launched attacks against Colvin's credibility. MacKay went so far as to suggest Colvin was a Taliban dupe, and Hawn attempted to undermine Colvin by saying it was easy for the diplomat to make wild allegations from the safe confines of North America.

This was a theme that was quickly seized and repeated by retired major-general Lewis Mackenzie. During an appearance on CTV, Mackenzie claimed to have heard "from a very reliable source, that [Colvin] was not permitted outside the wire in Kandahar probably once and not more than once." As such, Mackenzie opined that Colvin's research was therefore limited to second-hand sources via phone and emails. . . .

. . . As reported last week in the Ottawa Citizen, this information spread by Mackenzie and Blatchford on behalf of their DND source(s) is patently false. It was confirmed that Colvin left the base on at least six occasions to venture—at great personal risk—into the centre of Kandahar.

Mackenzie's political colours have not been much in doubt since 1997, when he first ran federally as a Progressive Conservative. They became even less in doubt when he signed on with Harper's much more right-leaning Conservatives. But his record in the Bosnian war was never spotless; as far as many of those on the Bosnian side were concerned, his negligence cost them dearly.

In the late Bosnian President's memoir, Alija Izetbegovic wrote of Mackenzie

On 13 July 1992 the State Commission for the Exchange of Prisoners submitted to UNPROFOR commander Lewis McKenzie [sic] a list of 42 camps that had by then been registered in Bosnia and Herzegovina. McKenzie publicly denied the existence of the camps, and instead of forwarding the letter giving details of the camps to the United Nations, he held on to it.

On 8 August 1992, the Sarajevo daily Oslobodenje published a list of 94 concentration camps in Bosnia and Herzegovina and the famous photograph taken at Omarska camp, broadcast by CNN. It was only then that the world, albeit unwillingly, began to face up to the horrific truth.

-- Inescapable Questions, Alija Izetbegovic

In a piece in 2005, however, MacKenzie attempts to shift blame for the famous 1995 Srebrenica massacre onto Bosnian Muslim soldiers, suggesting even that some of the deaths may have been attributable to "three years of intense fighting in the area." There may even be some truth to what he says, but it is interesting that he felt strongly enough about the difference between 2,000 deaths and 8,000 deaths to argue the point. When it comes to Srebrenica, MacKenzie seems happy to play the role that anti-semites have with respect to Auschwitz; because 6 million bodies were never found, the genocide must have been exaggerated.

While Mackenzie was on CTV during the 1999 Kosovo conflict as an expert commentator, he was one of the "journalists" whom Belgrade didn't expel. As CBC reporter Carol Off wrote in her book The Lion, the Fox, and the Eagle,

What the audience didn't know was that MacKenzie was in Belgrade as a guest of the Yugoslav government. According to MacKenzie, he obtained a visa for himself and the CTV crew after discussions with the embassy in Ottawa and with Yugoslavian ministers concerning what he might be able to do to help them out. . . . When the indicted war criminal (and soon to be murdered warlord) Arkan encountered MacKenzie in a hotel lobby, he greeted him warmly.
Of the numerous critics of the bombing of Yugoslavia, MacKenzie stands out as one of a select group who are not equally critical of any Western venture into the Muslim world. It is difficult to conclude from the above that MacKenzie's politics are informed by any particular prejudice, but it is hard not to consider the possibility, given the company he finds himself in.

In the light of this, it becomes less surprising that MacKenzie finds fellow-travellers in the likes of Stephen Harper, Peter MacKay, or even Jason Kenney. More than any government in Canadian history, the political agenda they have pursued is slowly transforming Canada from a country identified internationally for its values of tolerance and compassion and the country whose flag American travellers would sew to their backpacks, into a neoconservative bastion whose leaders think little about handing human beings over to a fate of certain torture.

The denials and smear have worn thin. What we must fear now is the next logical line that the Conservatives will fall back on - after obfuscation comes rationalization. The only thing worse than denying that we abetted torture is admitting it and claiming that we were justified.

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