Sunday, March 06, 2011

"So farewell to Nova Scotia's charms, for it's early in the morning. . ."

And when I'm far away on the briny ocean tossed, will you ever heave a sigh or a wish for me?

- "Farewell to Nova Scotia," old folk song, author unknown.

Not much can be said about how history will record the moment last week when the HMCS Charlottetown slipped its lines and set out from Halifax Harbour, bound for the waters off Libya. But historians will surely note that for all the rough certainties at the time, the Charlottetown nevertheless sailed off into uncharted waters, and the ship's crew did not know what new world they might encounter beyond the horizon. None of them even knew when they'd be coming home.

It is a tribute to the pluck of the frigate Charlottetown that it is sailing headlong into the unknown world that the Great Arab revolution of 2010 has set in train. It is a monument to something I can't quite put my finger on that while the entire world order was being up-ended - and as Keith Beardsley puts it, while people are dying in Libya for the right to be able to question their government - there was all manner of "in and out" warts to be worried and what have you in Ottawa last week, but only two questions to the government benches were about Libya.

It is wallop of a testimony to the whimpering incoherence of our time that even the venerable Washington Post has given its editorial-page pulpit to that landlubbing jackass Michael Scheuer, archdeacon of the Old World's isolationist gasbags, to explain things to us. To no one's surprise, Scheuer took the opportunity to thump his craw and bellow that what lies dead ahead for everybody involved is that ship-eating kraken, Al Qaida.

This is indeed an age of discovery and wonder, and the wheat separates from the chaff before our very eyes. As the novelist Salman Rushdie told an Emory University audience just the other day, this could well be "the moment at which the Islamic world moves beyond Islamism." Rushdie should need no introduction in these affairs but it's worth mentioning that he is best known for staring down a Khomeinist death-sentence fatwa while much of the Old World quaked and capitulated in its fear, and that Rushdie was right and the cowards were proved wrong. "The west talks a great deal about freedom. Here are people trying to get their freedom," Rushdie said of the Arab uprisings. "They're getting it for themselves, and I really hope we can support them."

Rushdie's point is that whatever storms lies ahead of us - and there will be gales, and there will be Islamist pirates to contend with - the sinking hulks of the Muslim Brotherhood's savage old ideologues, not least the grandpappies of Hamas and Al Qaida, are most noticeable in the flotsam in the wake of the young rebel Arab fleets. The old jihadists are weeping and gnashing their teeth now that the very Arabs they claim to champion have so thoroughly exposed them as losers, failures, and yesterday's men. Confront the Islamists, Rushdie exhorts, but do not fear the "fanatical bogeyman" of yesterday's world.

Yet it is exactly that bogeyman that looms on Michael Scheuer's fanciful horizons, and nobody speaks for the old flat-earth school of foreign policy quite like Scheuer does. But nevermind what I say about Scheuer. What he says for himself is that the Iraqi gargoyle Saddam Hussein and the Egyptian vampire Hosni Mubarak were "Israel's two anti-Islamist shields," and their exits are losses to be lamented. As more tyrants fall, the result will be "a more open, religion-friendly environment for speech, assembly and press freedoms" and this, we are to believe, is a bad thing. Why? Because it will be easier for media-savvy Islamist geezers to "proselytize, publish and foment without immediate threat of arrest and incarceration."

Notice that it is the very state of affairs that midwifed Egyptian jihadist crackpottery in the first place that Scheuer summons to our nostalgia, and thus, it is in strange times like these that the scum rises so quickly to the barrel-top. If free speech scares you, ban it; if you are scared by what people say, jail them; if this doesn't work, blame Zionist sorcerers, which is what Scheuer has been doing for some while now, sounding for all the world like Mahmoud Ahmedinejad as he does so. How do the Israeli wizards go about their mysterious alchemy? Why, by such means as establishing the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C. to guilt-trip and insinuate their way into the highest command centres of American imperialist shenanigans. It is "the most successful covert action program in the history of man," Scheuer says.

I would have thought that particular honour should go to Daniel the Liberator (peace be upon him) O'Connell for having outmanouvered Baron Vesey Fitzgerald in the County Clare byelections of 1828, but let's put that aside. Let's also put aside even the most transparently zenga-zenga aspects of Scheuer's wild claims, because there is something underlying the auto-satirical spectacle he is making of himself that is especially totemic of the demented, flat-earth-believing world the Charlottetown has put to its stern.

Have a look at the short plank Scheuer is happily taking a long walk upon without even so much as the point of a sword at his backside. It is a thing he himself has hewn and and mitred and fastened to the gunwhales. He fashioned it out of the very authority he claims in order to speak on these subjects in the first place. And what is it made of? Scheuer, a University of Manitoba 1986 alumnus, was the chief of the CIA's Osama bin Laden unit from 1996 to 1999.

Now, imagine having that as an entry on your cirriculum vitae. To have been merely in the room at any point during the most tragic and embarassing American intelligence failure since Pearl Harbour is a thing to wave around under our noses as cause to be taken seriously in these matters? As the CIA's Office of Inspector-General would later put it in a retrospective evaluation, most of the brainiacs in the Bin Laden unit "did not have the operational experience, expertise and training necessary to accomplish their mission in an effective manner." If you can think of a wilder understatement than that, off the top of your head, then you are a better person than I am. This is not to say the boys of the Bin Laden unit were layabouts. They were such rum lads that they were known inside the CIA as "the Manson family."

How does Scheuer reflect on his own labours in hunting Bin Laden? In his telling of the tale he sounds like Captain Ahab in Moby Dick, and you can't blame me for stretching the maritime metaphors this time. It's how Fouad Ajami, in the New York Times, describes what he hears when he listens to Scheuer: “Aye, aye! they were mine — my irons, cried Ahab, exultantly. . . . Aye, I see — wanted to part it; free the fast fish — an old trick — I know him.”

If you still think we should all be sniveling on the dock and sneering at the mad crew of the Charlottetown as they go sailing off the edge of the known world, be assured that you are not alone. If you think the NATO countries should smarten up and do exactly what Scheuer says, you will have many interesting friends. In 2007, Osama Bin Laden signed up as a volunteer publicity agent for Scheuer's book, Imperial Hubris: Why the West Is Losing the War on Terrorism, and he harangued us to buy up everything by Noam Chomsky while we were down at the bookstore getting a copy.

Scheuer's hoarse-throated sea terrors have not gone unrewarded, mind you. He's one of the most beloved pundits of the "anti-war" crowd. Oh look, here's another one of his pundittos now: "Barack Obama, Interventionist and Ultimate Jihadi Hero." That's as crazy as Barack Obama, Communist and Ultimate Kenyan Muslim, or Barack Obama, Christian Crusader and Ultimate Infidel. And Obama's just not that important anymore, anyway. This is not especially pleasant, but it's true.

Now one knows where this is all going, not in Egypt, Yemen, or Bahrain, but in times like these, fortune favours the brave. Even now there are courageous young Gazans defying Hamas goons, stepping out into the cool and the dark. There are students and oil-refinery workers and doctors joining Libya's "free army," in droves: On to Tripoli, on to Tripoli. It would be very nice if the rebels could count on the freedom-loving west for just a bit of help. At the very least, it would be nice if the windbags of the "west" who are always carrying on about their precious freedom would show these people just the tiniest bit of respect, since they're actually fighting and dying for that freedom.

And now there are Canadians aboard the HMCS Charlottetown making their way to Libya. Nobody knows what it will end up meaning. But when the sextants don't work and the chronometers are busted you sail by dead reckoning and you get on with it, and the rest of us should hope that that the voyage of the HMCS Charlottetown proves sufficiently uneventful that even such little things will be remembered as an amusing footnote to the frigate's departure the other day. Wellwishers on shore were perplexed that the ship had set off to whistles and hurrahs, but a short while later it turned around into the Bedford Basin and appeared to tarry there some long while.

It turned out that the ship was "degaussing," which is a word that doesn't show up in the newspapers very often. Degaussing offsets the effects of increased magnetic-field intensity around steel-hulled ships. It's a procedure pioneered during the Second World War by the Royal Canadian Navy's own Sir Charles Frederick Goodeve, OBE. Goodeve's degaussing method handily foiled the German magnetic mines that were sinking so many merchant and military ships back in those days. The mines were triggered to explode at a certain "gauss," a unit of magnetic measurement the Germans were using, hence degaussing. Goodeve's innovation kept the shipping lanes open, and the shipping lanes kept Britain alive and fighting, and that's how the good guys won the war. Funny old world.

We should hope and pray that one of the only things that will be worth remembering about the Charlottetown's departure was that curious business about magnetic fields and steel hulls. The ship is now about mid-point in the Atlantic, headed east. There is a crew of roughly 240 men and women aboard.

Long life to them all.


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