Canada Foreign Policy
Friday, September 29, 2006
  Calm-- on the Outside

Could PM Stephen Harper be losing his composure? Are the critics of his handling of Afghanistan finally managing to exact a toll? Of course, Harper is mostly calm in public. He rarely, if ever, expresses any emotion and for the most part seems to be able and content to continue doing so for a political eternity. How long he manages to bottle up his anger, however, may prove the exception.

Just a few days ago former PM Paul Martin weighed in on Afghanistan, saying the Tories had lost their way. Martin, reminding the public he was responsible for the mission during his days in office, now asks: “Are we doing the amount of reconstruction, the amount of aid that I believe was part of the original mission? The answer unequivocally is that we're not.” Harper may have ignored Martin, or perhaps had another minister comment. Instead, Harper opted to attack, and to remind everyone of Martin’s Dithers image. Harper first acknowledged that Martin was indeed responsible for the mission, and that because of this could not and should not now act as critic. “When you make those kinds of decisions as a prime minister, you have to be able to take responsibility for them and stick with them…The fact that Mr. Martin is unable to do that, in this and so many other cases, illustrates why he is no longer prime minister of our country” [Martin and Harper cited in ‘Harper Slams Martin for Criticizing Afghan Mission,’ CTV News, 27 September 2006. Story posted at].

But why be so aggressive on offence? Surely Harper understands Martin is, was, and will not be a political threat. And what possible gain is to be made from being so belligerent? Could stress be a factor? Is Harper frustrated, infuriated by the attacks of his handling of Central Asian policy? Did Harper somehow expect those who endorsed and shaped the mission would refrain from negative comment now that they find themselves in opposition?

Or is it simply the case that Harper is merely irritated by his critics? Perhaps he wants them simply to leave him alone, as he does not intend to even begin taking them seriously. Writer Murray Dobbin suggests that no amount of opposition, from other parties or the public, will ever have any impact on Harper. Dobbin says:

'It is alarming for many Canadians to watch Stephen Harper, the head of a minority government with the support of fewer than 40 per cent of citizens, turn Canada into a nation of war. But that is what is happening. .. Stephen Harper's contempt for Canada and what it became in the decades following the Second World War is firmly on the record. Most of his comments — his sneering dismissal of our egalitarianism and sense of community — relate to social programs like medicare. Utterly blind to how the rest of the world sees the conflict in Afghanistan, Harper told the CBC that Canada's role in Afghanistan is “...certainly raising Canada's leadership role, once again, in the United Nations and in the world community.” '[Cited in Murray Dobbin’s ‘Harper Pride Tied to Military Muscle,’ originally published in The Tyee and also posted at].

Perhaps Harper is obsessed with Afghanistan. Perhaps he is groping for a way to turn his foreign policy into the centrepiece of his domestic agenda. Perhaps he is impacted by the critics. Perhaps he is concerned about failure. Whatever the case, some found his speech to the UN General Assembly on 21 September 2006 baffling. Harper used almost all of his time to dwell on Afghanistan, and how Canada, come what may, would remain committed to that country. Afghanistan, stressed the PM, is the world’s “greatest test” and “Our collective will and credibility are being judged. We cannot afford to fail.” But some noticed, almost immediately, that it was arguably unusual there was little mention of other problems, issues, and nations around the world. Gerry Barr, from the Canadian Council for International Co-operation, asked: “What about environment, health and HIV-AIDS for heaven's sake? What about development, the other continents of the world. That is a concern.” Barr, who noted Afghanistan was dividing Canadians, summed up the PM’s performance, noting: “He's a national leader speaking to the world…I think what he ended up doing was sort of addressing the domestic debate” [Harper and Barr quoted in ‘Harper: Afghanistan UN’s ‘Greatest Test’,’ by Tonda MacCharles, Toronto Star, 22 September 2006. Story also posted at].

Perhaps just how quickly developments in and around Afghanistan have overtaken Tory capabilities to manage policy is now becoming apparent and problematic. And there is no sign things will get easier for Harper. NDP leader Jack Layton, who now says problems in Afghanistan must be resolved through "the principles of conflict resolution” and not “war fighting” might spin foreign policy into a domestic issue and potential votes for his party [Layton quoted in CKNW Radio Interview with Bill Good, 10:00-10:30hrs. PST, 29 September 2006]. And even some of Harper’s friends and allies have become critics, making it harder for the PM to defend his position. Pakistan’s President, Pervez Musharraf, for example, recently spoke about his country’s contribution to the war on terror and Canadians’ responses and involvement in that same conflict. “You suffer two dead and there's a cry and shout all around the base that there are coffins …Well, we've had 500 coffins”. After learning what Musharraf had said, the PM responded, observing only that “Let me just say that Pakistan is an important ally in the fight against terror” [Musharraf and Harper cited in ‘Pakistan Vital Ally—Harper,’ The Edmonton Sun, 28 September 2006. Story posted at].

Most recently, Harper continues to use every possible opportunity to suggest our allies could become more involved. NATO and the UN, according to the PM, could do more for Afghanistan.

Posted by Stan Markotich
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