Canada Foreign Policy
Tuesday, October 31, 2006
  Foreign Policy, or Peter and Belinda?

“Don't mention the war. I mentioned it once, but I think I got away with it all right.”
--Basil Fawlty (John Cleese)

Are we close to a federal vote, say maybe 6-8 months away? The fact that minority governments traditionally last under two years says this may be the case. The fact that politicians are not really talking about Afghanistan may be another sign.

In the US, where mid-term elections are about a week away, we may be witnessing something that could materialize when Canadians go to the polls. Both Democrats and Republicans find themselves steering away from talking Iraq, suggesting those vying for office may hold opinions about the conflict that diverge, and significantly, from what many in the public are thinking and worrying about. In other words, the majority of Democrats and some Republicans, while perhaps critical of how the Iraq campaign is being handled, may already have concluded involvement in the war must go on, thereby reducing the need for a broader public debate or input. In this climate, the more voters can be focussed on social issues, the better—at least for those, most especially incumbents, running for office. And if the subject of war cannot be avoided altogether, then debating or talking about it just might be left for “the campaign's final week” [See David Espo’s ‘Dems Counter Bush Attack with Iraq Ads,’ AP, 30 October 2006. Story posted at].

In recent days Canadians have been served up media saturation of an incident in which Foreign Affairs Minister Peter MacKay allegedly insulted former love interest and current Liberal MP Belinda Stronach. Is this the kind of issue that may provide a preview of any upcoming campaign? It is a social issue, impacting many ordinary people who found offence in what took place.

The time so far spent by the political elite dealing with Peter and Belinda has been so great, even the Speaker is been made weary: “Commons Speaker Peter Milliken has bowed out of the dispute between Belinda Stronach and Peter MacKay, saying it's not his job to decide who's telling the truth in the tangled affair…Milliken refused today to refer the matter to a committee for further investigation, or to demand an apology from MacKay.” And all this is happening because some members of the opposition insist, while the minister denies, “MacKay suggested during a raucous exchange two weeks ago that Stronach, his onetime girlfriend, is a dog” [cited in “Speaker Done with MacKay-Stronach Affair,” CP, 30 October 2006. Story posted at].

But couldn’t the Foreign Affairs Minister be speaking about Afghanistan instead of arguing he slighted no one? There appear to be compelling reasons to do so. Canada’s commander in southern Afghanistan, Brigadier General David Fraser, who is handing over command to Major General Ton Van Loon of the Netherlands on 1 November 2006, explains why more discussion may be badly needed. In an interview, Fraser tells us “This environment [in southern Afghanistan] is more dangerous than I've ever seen anywhere else in the world…Over here, everybody is a target. The Taliban respects nobody. A reporter, the International Committee of the Red Cross, UN, military, Afghan. Everybody is an equal target of opportunity for them” [Fraser cited in ‘Canada’s Top Soldier Hands over Command,’ CP, 30 October 2006. Story posted at].

Or does General Fraser account for why Canadians may hear even less and less about geopolitical hot zones? After a sudden rise in Canadian casualties some months ago, Tory support slipped and subsequently plunged, only beginning to rise in the past few weeks, and following a rather lengthy period of Conservatives dealing publicly as little as possible with Afghanistan and the war. The Tories are committed to the mission, as is the Liberal Party. Should Michael Ignatieff become the next Liberal leader, it may prove difficult if not impossible to distinguish his position on Afghanistan from PM Stephen Harper’s. Any Harper-Ignatieff pairing in the next election will push Afghanistan out of the limelight.

But what about the other federal party, the New Democratic Party? Won’t Jack Layton want to talk about the war? After all, until about a month ago Layton had been the most vocal about what needs to be changed in Afghanistan. He has talked about retooling the mission; focussing on diplomacy and reconstruction; finding a role for the principles of conflict resolution and peacekeeping; and has even injected an element of realpolitik into the public dialogue by stating many Afghan groups, including those viewed as hostile, may be brought into discussions if the cause of peace might be advanced. All this, while true, is very far from meaning the NDP wants to take on Afghanistan as the main issue in the next election. Furthermore, the NDP, at least for now, has stayed very far away from suggesting that it even wants to court the anti-war vote, a constituency that may be rather large in Canada. Instead, the party has opted to deal with the war as a means of simply testing for a public response of sympathy for party positions/platforms. The NDP has not invited debate; it has merely sought out reactions that may serve to inform the party of what posture to take when and if the issue of the war arises. The NDP, in other words, appears not to be seeking policy inputs, but public reactions that might show what already formulated positions will be the most marketable.

In short, in order for foreign policy, and especially the mission in Afghanistan, to have a defining impact in the next election, two obstacles need to be cleared. First, the war needs to become at least as much a focus as social issues. This is next to impossible, though not completely out of the question. Second, the way in which parties formulate their policy will have to change. And to even think this might change would require much, much more than a leap of faith. The connection between interest groups who create policies marketed to parties will define how and if Afghanistan appears in the public domain, with the voting population existing as the arena for test marketing those policies. Individuals will be asked to react to policies, and not to debate them. A leader or candidate demanding an opinion that requires only a yes or no response is not inviting discussion, merely soliciting a reaction. We may be asked: Do we need to be in Afghanistan? Should we set a timetable for withdrawal? Should we be bound by any timetable? Should Canadians be peacekeepers? None of these types of questions demand debate, requiring only the yes or no reaction.

If any leader or candidate might really want public input, she or he might ask us: why exactly was the decision to get involved in Afghanistan made and what might be the consequences of a withdrawal? This, however, simply will not happen. Foreign Affairs Minister MacKay might have a very prominent role in the elections. But no one should be surprised if we best remember his participation in terms of appearances in Liberal attack ads featuring Belinda Stronach.

Posted by Stan Markotich
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