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Patrick Luciani: The tragic mind of Robert D. Kaplan

Commentary

Review of: The Tragic Mind: Fear, Fate, and the Burden of Power
Author: Robert D. Kaplan
Publisher: Yale University Press 2023

If anyone is qualified to talk about war and conflict, it’s Robert Kaplan and his forty years as a foreign correspondent. He is on everyone’s list of top policy thinkers and has written 20 books to back up his reputation. He has now added another, The Tragic Mind: Fear, Fate, and the Burden of Power, his most personal book.

The Tragic Mind is about deep regret by a keen observer of war and how he got the Iraq War wrong. After spending the 1980s covering the Greater Middle East and Eastern Europe, nothing was more terrifying than Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. Kaplan described it as “one vast prison yard lit by high-wattage lamps,” with a level of tyranny even worse than Hafez al-Assad’s Syria and comparable to Nicolae Ceausescu’s Romania. Kaplan returned to Iraq in 2004, embedded with the U.S. Marines in their first battle of Fallujah. He believed that overthrowing Saddam and installing a democratically elected government was the right thing to do. His position was transformed when he witnessed the brutality and anarchy that led to countless innocent deaths causing him to suffer a clinical depression that lasted for years.

Kaplan describes himself as a political realist, a position that mostly says to leave well enough alone. This time that instinct and objectivity deserted him. Kaplan quotes the medieval Persian philosopher Abu Hamid al-Ghazali, saying that one year of anarchy is worse than a hundred years of tyranny.

How could Kaplan have gotten it so wrong? He admits he lost perspective as an independent observer. He was affected by “group think” where most of Washington favoured the war, including a majority in the Senate and House of Representatives. War was in the air, and Kaplan got swept away without considering the consequences of toppling Iraq’s leader. He felt the burden of his writing that may have influenced political leaders. Kaplan knows the heavy moral responsibilities of a writer. His 1993 book Balkan Ghost so “depressed the president [Clinton] that it led to inaction on his part.” Kaplan supported military action to save lives in Bosnia, but his book had the opposite effect. 

For solace and insight, Kaplan turns to the ancient Greeks and Shakespeare. Sophocles’ plays, such as Oedipus Rex and Antigone, teach that predestination can’t be avoided or that duties and loyalties to the state or religion are often in conflict. The ancients teach that the wise are full of fear and must think tragically to avoid even greater disaster—a lesson Vladimir Putin is quickly learning after he invaded Ukraine. Putin’s hubris can be ranked with the outrageous arrogance of the Persian king Xerxes when a smaller motivated Athenian force destroyed his mighty army.

Removing Saddam Hussein seemed an apparent good in ridding the world of a murderous tyrant, but a greater evil followed. We worry about the terrible things that don’t happen but seldom about the awful things that do occur. Great statesmen have this innate sense of tragedy. They imagine the unimaginable. 

Reflecting on those who have this quality, Kaplan mentions former Secretaries of State Henry Kissinger, James Baker, and George Shultz. He also includes two presidents, General Dwight D. Eisenhower and George H. W. Bush, who could see beyond current conflicts and steady America’s military hand in dangerous times. In the case of Eisenhower, he held back after the Soviet Union aggressively moved against Hungary in 1956 and Bush Sr. when he limited the first Gulf War to expel Iraq’s army from Kuwait. In a speech in Kyiv in 1991, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Bush Sr. warned of the dangers of suicidal nationalism. It was received as a retreat undermining the Ukrainian struggle for independence. But he saw the risks of a collapsing Soviet Empire that eventually produced Vladimir Putin. 

It’s no accident that both Eisenhower and Bush Sr. were military men who experienced the death and destruction of war. It wasn’t their understanding of international affairs or the past but their capacity to know that further action could lead to disaster. I’ll also add John F. Kennedy to this list. He had the sense to reject the unanimous advice of his joint chiefs of staff and national security advisor, who recommended an all-out assault during the Cuban Missile Crisis. This event still lingers in the Russian mind as a moment of humiliation that must be avenged, a theme that echoes throughout Greek tragedy. 

Does learning the lessons of history prevent mistakes that lead to tragedy? Kaplan thinks not. History is an imperfect guide to understanding the future or the optimistic view that the “arc of history” bends toward justice. In his view, history rarely repeats and seldom rhymes. And the study of international affairs is a poor social science in understanding the behaviour of nations. Kaplan reminds us that every villain isn’t Adolf Hitler, and not all years are 1939. 

If we can’t look to history as a guide, we might find some understanding in the ancients that teach about chance, predestination, and the limits of imagination. We might also learn that the potential for tragedy is always present. Kaplan hopes we can stave off disaster by reflecting on the literary classics and the good fortune of having wise leaders. It’s not much, but it’s all we have in a dangerous world. 

Howard Anglin: God save us from the eminent Canadians

Commentary

At least it wasn’t Beverley McLachlin. Apparently even Justin Trudeau thinks it would be a bit de trop to appoint a judge who sits on a Chinese court to investigate Chinese meddling in our electoral system. But admit it: her name at least crossed your mind when Trudeau promised that he would appoint an “eminent Canadian” to look into the matter.

Instead, we got David Johnston, and it doesn’t get much more eminent than that. The man was captain of the varsity hockey team at Harvard, for goodness sake. If we were the sort of country that still went in for honorific prefixes and postnominals, the plain Mr. Johnston would have a string of them as long as any Victorian colonial grandee.

Johnston was a genial and impeccably boring Governor General at a time when that was a welcome relief. Bland to the point of invisibility, he seemed determined not to be noticed. He even refused the historic uniform, opting instead to dress like the commodore of a suburban yacht club. 

Publicly, he rarely set a foot wrong, while privately he performed the less palatable duties of his office without complaint, schmoozing foreign dictators and paying Canada’s official respects at the funerals of the sort of head of state it would be awkward for the PM to honour. 

I don’t mean any of that churlishly. Johnston was an unsung diplomatic asset who reliably and effectively pressed Canada’s interests at the highest levels around the world in ways that most people in government never saw. His reports of his meetings were incisive and helpful.

It’s true that his record of investigative and regulatory appointments is rather more checkered. His exclusion of the Airbus payments to Karlheinz Schreiber from the scope of the Oliphant Commission’s terms of reference was at best a serious error in judgment. I’ll leave the “at worst” alternative to those who were there

More recently, he headed up the hapless Leaders’ Debates Commission that barred True North and Rebel Media from covering the 2019 leaders’ debates. The two news outlets had to rush to the Federal Court to overturn the decision, which the judge said was “lacking in discernible rationality and logic” and “neither justified nor intelligible.” 

Others have pointed to his involvement with the Pierre Elliott Trudeau Foundation as a problem, though that doesn’t bother me nearly as much as his advisory role with Deloitte, one of those global advisory firms that has raked in billions from government consulting (including in $172 million from the Government of Canada in 2021-22 alone, according to a Carleton University report) and has generally viewed the genocidal PRC as a gold mine rather than a global threat. 

But complaining about any of this, or any of Johnston’s other corporate and eleemosynary boards, commissions, panels, and advisory roles is beside the point: this is what it means to be an eminent Canadian. As soon as Trudeau uttered that dismal phrase, we knew what were in for. Frankly, Johnston is about as good as we could have hoped for, all things considered. 

The problem here is not Johnston, it’s the whole class, nay the very idea, of “eminent Canadians”—a phrase that means nothing outside Ottawa and a few corporate boardrooms in downtown Toronto and Montreal, but which means everything within that ambit. In those enclaves of faux leather chairs and sapless modern art, the answer to every problem is always the same: deploy the eminent Canadians! 

This is why their boards are stacked with them, and how we end up with paragraphs like this, which could be torn from the appendix of Peter C. Newman’s The Canadian Establishment:

Circles are small in Canadian business, and [BMO board chairman] Mr. Prichard and [BMO vice-chair] Mr. Lynch had every reason to be twisting arms on behalf of SNC-Lavalin, though the pair were in the Prime Minister’s office so often last fall they should have been allowed to choose the furniture. Mr. Prichard is also chair of law firm Torys, which is representing the Montreal-based engineering company. And along with his day job at BMO, Mr. Lynch is chair of the board of SNC-Lavalin. He’s also the former Clerk of the Privy Council, the country’s top civil servant.

When Lytton Strachey wrote his bitchy little book Eminent Victorians, he scandalized British society by aiming his iconoclasm at true giants of the previous age, figures still much better remembered than Strachey himself (the arc of history sometimes does bend toward justice). If the book has a legacy today, it is that it left the adjective “eminent” charged with faintly sardonic insinuation. Only in Canada, and even then only among a certain type of insular Laurentian Liberal, could the phrase “eminent Canadian” still be used unironically. 

The label does, however, pair well with Johnston’s other new title of “special rapporteur.” Brent Cameron did a fine job in these pages explaining what exactly a “special rapporteur” is and what it might mean in this novel context, so I will skip the details. The short answer is that it’s a term borrowed from the dubious United Nations Human Rights Council for an expert appointed to assist them in their (sometimes not entirely spurious) human rights investigations. 

Cameron explained that, “[a]ssuming the use of the unconventional title isn’t some cynical messaging ploy” (which, for the record, is not an assumption that I am willing to grant), if the Trudeau government follows the UN’s example, the “special rapporteur” will be granted virtually unrestricted access to “interview all manner of individuals within the government, the opposition, the intelligence and law enforcement communities, academia, and any advocacy groups within the broader society.” This—and I don’t think I’m bursting anyone’s bubble here—is not going to happen. Even if it did, I doubt Johnston would find much that would surprise anyone.

And here we finally get to my own problem with the appointment. The eminently special David Johnston may be expert in many things, but he is not an expert in the areas relevant to this investigation. He is not an expert in foreign or domestic intelligence, he is not an expert in the political activities of the Chinese Communist Party, and—most importantly—he is not an expert in politics. 

If you want someone to investigate who has been tampering with the high table seating chart at Massey College, an eminent Canadian like Johnston is your man. No question. But the allegations of electoral interference that he is being tasked to investigating occurred at a rather less eminent level of our national politics, down in the murky world of riding nominations and municipal politics. 

These are shady places where, when you turn over a rock, you never know what is going to scurry out. I fear that Johnston will be lost as an outsider in the world of membership drives, volunteer recruitment, straw donors, and foreign-influenced diaspora politics, and will end up chasing shadows, half-truths, and will-o-the-whisp allegations down dead-end paper trails.

But if not Johnston, then who? Cameron’s suggestion of a retired judge or diplomat “from Britain, Australia, or New Zealand—jurisdictions that approximate Canada on multiple levels and utilize the Westminster system of government” is smart, though instead of a judge or diplomat, I’d have gone for a retired intelligence mandarin or ex-cabinet minister, someone with relevant experience of either foreign interference or coal-face politics. Anyone, really, who knows first-hand what to look for. Anyone, in other words, but an “eminent Canadian.”