This is the second part of three in a post which began with the ancient advice: Make a habit of two things –to help, or at least to do no harm.
Voters have given the Liberal party a timeout, an opportunity to do a little soul-searching and to come up with some good policy. Currently, the party has no executive control over the Afganistan mission and Stephen Harper has announced that he does not feel bound by the will of the House of Commons. So whatever anyone else may be saying, there is no urgency for Liberals to rush into a decision that may be regretted later. The party needs to take the long view and come up with the ideas that everyone can agree upon in a future election and potentially as a government that does control the Afgan mission.
My gut feeling is that, unless the Afganistan mission takes a dramatic turn, it will not play that much of a role in the next election and will be largely overshadowed by other issues like global warming, illegal party fundraising and the fiscal imbalance. If I am right, this will not be a vote getter for anyone, but it is worthwhile coming up with a long-term national policy that our troops can rely upon when they are sent abroad or planning new missions.
Canadians have come to expect that our government should play a leadership role internationally when it comes to peacekeeping. There is an argument going around that because our allies, and in particular our military allies in NATO, are involved in a mission, Canada needs to “step up” as well. Probably moderate parliamentarians in our ally nations are persuaded in part by the same logic: if all my friends are doing it, I should probably be doing it too. At a certain point though the “our allies need us” gambit starts sounding a lot like a game of chicken among a group of otherwise individually responsible teenagers. Its o.k. to question the wisdom of excessive violence even if it has international momentum and no head. In this case, the aggressiveness of the tactics used in Afganistan may undermine the potential benefits of intervention and all our good intentions.
The Toronto Star published an editorial last week that uses some of these questionable arguments.
“The Liberals will not advance Canada's interests, or their own, by giving the impression that they waver when bullets start flying and the going gets tough. Canada must stay the course. Our values are on the line. Our allies are counting on us. So are the Afghan people.”
Toronto Star editorial
It’s a nice bit of rhetoric, but I am not convinced that hitching a ride on George Bush’s increasingly lame-duck presidency is good foreign policy.
As close neighbours and friends, Canadians know and admire the essential American message of democracy and freedom. Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln and JFK among other great names are heroes for us as well. Something we are well situated to do as friends and allies is to moderate this message to the world when at times it becomes distorted by the vagaries of their own internal politics. George Bush will not last forever. It’s not a role we can play because of our big army. We are able to effect the direction of the mission because, like those overseas American tourists who pose as Canadians by pinning or sewing our flag to their clothing and belongings, the U.S. government wants to trade on our excellent international reputation to legitimize the mission. But a good name is not something to be bought or sold.
I have always felt that the strength of the Liberal party is in building consensus of the kind that lasts for decades and eventually takes root in all parties. Grand ideological speeches sound hollow to us. And generally Liberals have proceeded by listening to all sides and making decisions as the context suggests, recognizing that there is a fine line between leadership and obstructing democracy. So it is important to note that there is widespread concern, in Quebec especially, about the excessive use of force against the Afgan people. Is it not counter-productive?
The anonymous Star editorial suggests that anyone who disagrees with Stephen Harper’s war is a coward – or can be perceived as a coward. It’s another way of telling people to shut-up and just do exactly what George Bush wants us to do. If this is at all representative of local attitudes, then some Toronto Liberals are wasting a lot of effort trying to shut down discussion at a moment in the history of the party when they should rather be listening.
The third section of this post which will appear soon will ask about the quality of information we are getting out of Afganistan.