Monday, June 19, 2006

A reasonable criterion for military engagement

149 yeas, 145 nays. There is not a lot of room for expression in a yes or no vote. And there are many politicians poised to exploit that fact for political gain. In effect they hope to make the public debate about the Afganistan mission just a little bit more stupid. They will pretend that the only serious options are yes or no to Stephen Harper’s war.

It’s surprising how rapidly Stephen Harper has abandoned the political centre on the issue of the military: the “tough” Bush inspired slogans, the emphasis on counter-terrorism, the secrecy, the obstruction of parliamentary debate leading ultimately to a rushed and acrimonious vote in the Commons, a disastrous public relations policy that attempted to hide the returning coffins of soldiers from the media, and now huge spending increases to the military budget including billion dollar items that the military –read Rick Hillier—does not consider necessary. These are all hallmarks of the authoritarian right wing, something that generally has not been popular in Canada in the recent past. As a result of his over eagerness to claim the issue, Stephen Harper may have difficulty dispelling a growing perception of being a little bit trigger happy.

It is to Harper’s advantage then to have everyone believe that the only other option is to oppose the mission. Indeed, as various politicians on the left calculate the potential votes, discussion is set to divide between these two stale ideological poses, leaving I suspect the majority of Canadians uneasily in the middle, feeling they should pick a side or maybe wavering noncomittally back and forth from month to month depending on the most recent news out of Afganistan. As the debate is currently framed, seizing the political centre would not be without peril. It would demand the skills of a seasoned politician, someone who could effectively resist the simplistic yea/nay mentality while communicating more reasonable options in a vivid way that regular people can understand.

It is important to note that before Harper came along, there was all party support for the Afgan mission. It is possible to have national consensus and it should be a criterion for future military engagements. Initial support for the Afganistan mission however was largely based on the assumption that it would follow in the highly respected Canadian peacekeeping tradition, the old consensus. This is not the case. The traditional peacekeeping role was challenged by the experiences of our troops in Rwanda which suggested that certain changes had to be considered. For instance, allowing soldiers to fire their weapons to protect civilians. The Liberals are to blame for perhaps moving too fast and committing the country to new, more violent, tactics before cultivating public opinion. That was a mistake. It could be argued that the aggressiveness of the new military strategy goes far beyond what would be required to avoid a repeat of the failures in Rwanda. Whether one initially agrees with this or not, it is an important topic that Canadians need to be made aware of before we make any further military engagements. We would be supporting the troops by finding a consistent policy that all Canadians could get behind regardless of which party is in power.

That does not change the fact that Canadian troops are currently in Afganistan as part of a commitment until 2008, a topic I will take up in a post in two weeks time. But first I want to look at “Who exactly are the enemies of freedom?”

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