Thursday, March 19, 2009

Bush in Canada

The story didn’t get much play in the US media, and (very surprisingly) almost no mention at all (outside Calgary) in the Canadian media, but George Bush gave his first post-presidential (paid) speech to a bunch of oil barons in Alberta a couple of days ago. He was under extremely heavy security -- the kind a mass-murderer would get, not that of a visiting dignitary -- the entire time, making no public appearances. His appearance drew protests, even in the highly-conservative* city and provice of Calgary, Alberta.

*(“conservative” in the Canadian sense of the term, not the American sense.)

We have mixed feelings about this. Like most Americans (and most Canadians), we are not big fans of George Bush, his policies or view of the world. But that’s not really the problem.

The problem is that allowing him into Canada in the first place is against the law. It’s against Canadian law, it’s against the international treaties Canada signed. Canadian law specifically bars people suspected or accused of war crimes into the country, and it’s a fact that Mr Bush has been accused of exactly that. Such people are not let in, period, full stop. No exceptions -- except, apparently, this time.

It is also Canadian law that people who have US criminal records -- as Mr. Bush does -- cannot be freely admitted into the country.

Finally, visitors to Canada cannot earn money here without a work permit. This is also very clearly spelled out in the law. These are the rules I have to play by, the rules every other newcomer to Canada has to obey, why doesn’t (now private citizen) Bush have to?

In making an exception to these laws, and also (importantly) spurning Canada’s treaty obligations to arrest, detain and investigate accusations of war crimes, PM Harper and his administration undermine the law and its importance to society. They undermine the strength of the accords this country signs, which of course reduces those accords to a joke. He also sends a clear message to immigrants everywhere that being rich and/or famous exempts you from “the rules.” These days in particular, that is not a particularly welcome -- or sensible -- view. Much of the mess the world is in today is a direct result of leaders in government and business who decided that they were too rich, too important, or too self-righteous to have the laws and charters of the world apply to them.

Canada’s immigration policy imposes some inconvenient hardships on those who wish to come here, particularly the inability to work until you are granted permanent resident status (which takes several years). To watch anyone, nevermind who, sail in here and rake in the cash, flouting all the major immigration laws and regulations -- and particularly when the person in question should, according to customs and treaty obligations, be arrested, detained and shipped to the Hague -- is outrageous and hypocritical. I know Mr. Bush is not trying for permanent residence, and I know lots of Americans (such as athletes and entertainers) come to Canada and earn money -- but every single one of them (except Bush) still has to submit to background checks, pay taxes on what they earn, hire lawyers to get a work permit and generally follow the rules, with the distinct probability that if they do not pass muster they will be denied admission. But as he has done his entire life, Mr. Bush not only gets a pass on this, he takes full advantage of it.

Canada should have said simply (and early on), “We would love to host Mr Bush as a former president of the US, but due to our laws and international commitments we must advise him not to attempt entry into Canada or any other country that respects its obligations under the Geneva Conventions.”

Amy Winehouse, by comparison, would have an almost impossible task before her if she to want to do some concerts in this country -- despite the demand for her services and her cultural success -- because of her drink-related convictions and widely-publicised drug problems. Canada Customs would take one look at her and almost certainly (but politely) turn her away. How is this different than Mr Bush, who has at least one DUI and cocaine conviction on his record? Is it the tattoos? The rat’s nest hairdo? The bad makeup?

It is bad enough that America itself has not yet owned up to its obligations to the world when it comes to investigating and prosecuting torture and war crimes, but the political fallout and societal chaos of the US government arresting a former president and other top officials is at least comprehensible and the desire to avoid this understandable. Canada, however, is not under any obligation to concern itself with those consequences, as they don’t affect us. Does anyone really believe that if Canada had arrested Mr Bush, the US would retaliate?? With what??

This is just one more example of the lack of genuine “grown-ups,” ie people who actually honour and respect the laws they swear allegiance to, in leadership positions in the world. It is the second-largest source of the issues we face in the world today. I’m hopeful that this trend has now found its bottom and is starting to reverse, but clearly we have a long way to go before the West returns to being a fully civilised society that honours the rule of law.

Having said all that, we were at least partially cheered by some of what Mr Bush had to say in his speech (not that this excuses anything). It seems to us he made a genuine (for him) attempt to be classy and gracious -- not the first time he has tried to do so, it should be noted -- with regard to the current president. He specifically repudiated those who have succeeded him in the Republican party, saying (paraphrasing him, his English is very poor as you know) that it is “essential” to support the president and that his policies succeed, even if you disagree with them. A lot of Republicans clearly need to get this memo, starting with former VP Darth Dick “STFU” Cheney.

He also said it was not proper for him to criticise Obama, at least in the early days of his administration (he has only been there for two months, let’s not forget), and that he loves his country more than he loves politics, which is why he wants Obama to succeed. These are all sentiments we strongly support, and not just because “our guy” is in power right now; we felt the exact same way during Bush’s first term, before it became obvious that the level of hypocrisy, incompetence and corruption in the Bush administration precluded any possibility of success.

“He was not my first choice for President, but when he won, I thought it was good for the United States of America,” Bush said at the speech, for which he was paid approximately $250,000 (Canadian -- I wonder if he knows we’re not at par anymore?).
He added “I want the President to succeed ... [Mr Obama] deserves my silence and if he wants my help he can pick up the phone and call me.”
I consider Mr Bush a deeply misguided, intellectually-challenged and dishonest man, but even I have to acknowledge and respect his patriotism. Interestingly, even at this carefully-calculated, high-security event playing to a friendly audience, he apparently got some pushback on his decisions regarding Iraq and Afghanistan. I hope he will reflect on that.

I will continue to hope that he eventually understands the connections -- and consequences -- between his actions and his unpopularity. Trials, for example, are an excellent way of discovering other people’s perspectives on your actions, don’t you agree?


Anonymous said...

Hello from Foggy Salt Spring....

I won't quibble with your opinion of former President Bush, because I entirely agree....

However, regarding his admission to Canada. He is not a "private citizen" under international law, he is a former Head of State. Which gives him something like diplomatic immunity for minor crimes. He has not been formally charged for a serious crime by any jurisdiction that Canada would recognize as having authority. He is not taking a job away from a Canadian, for the simple fact that no Canadian is a former President. Many people and professions are allowed to cross the border and give speeches, without breaking work visa rules.

We may not like the job the former president may have done, but he broke no rules speaking in Calgary. Anyone with the same credentials would have been given the same treatment. And that is another characteristic of Canadians. We believe in fair-play by fair rules. There was no special treatment here (OK, actually I'll bet there was.... the American security team would have been carrying guns).

chas_m said...

As usual, your comments are wise and I may very well revise bits of the entry to reflect your points, but I must quibble about the "private citizen" designation and the charging of war crimes.

In the eyes of the United States, Mr Bush is indeed now a private citizen, albeit and rich and influential one. "Former Head of State" can and should carry some courtesy privileges and minor diplomatic immunity, but Canadian law is very clear on this point: anyone suspected of war crime or serious criminal violations cannot be admitted into the country.

No less an authority than the International Red Cross (the ultimate arbiter of such matters per the Geneva Conventions) says the US tortured prisoners at Guantanamo Bay with Mr Bush's *direct* knowledge and approval. That definitely qualifies as an official accusation, doesn't it?

Other countries, such as France and Germany, have made no secret of their intention to arrest and prosecute US war criminals (such as Henry Kissinger), I feel confident that had Bush tried to enter either of these countries he would have been handled entirely differently than the way Canada did.

But even if Canadians want to ignore their own laws (foolishly), they can't ignore their obligations under the treaties they have signed any more than the US can.

In this time of turmoil, the world might be patient, but eventually the US will have to answer to their responsibilities as UN charter signatories and investigate the Bush administration.

Seth said...

Wise? Or Cynical? Thanks, however.

We should probably agree to disagree on the former President's status.

However, Canada will never do anything as drastic as refuse admittance to any former President, until actually convicted. Despite Bush's current unpopularity in the US, he is still the American past president, and Americans - and while they may be happy to speak badly of him at home - don't usually appreciate non-Americans criticizing anything American.

Harper actually summed it up well last month in an interview with CBC. Essentially he said.... "In any dispute between the US and Canada, it doesn't matter who is right - Canada gets hurt".

It doesn't matter if Bush should or should not be admitted, not admitting him would be seen as an insult to the office of the President, and Canada would be penalized.

Seth said...

A ps to the post I just posted...

I should have added IMHO....