Friday, February 22, 2008

Don't Despair, Tories: The New Conservative Strategy In Afghanistan Is All Part Of The Plan

There have been some major developments in the debate surrounding Canada's role in Afghanistan over the past few days, developments that haven't been all that welcome to a significant number of Conservative bloggers and partisans. The argument has been made - and a strong argument it is - that setting an exit date for a military mission is irresponsible since the goal of the Canadian presence in Kandahar is the achievement of specific tasks; namely, the suppression of the Taliban insurgency and the realization of stability and physical security in the troubled province. Some critics have implied or stated that Harper "blinked first" and that the new plan is a disappointment to Tories who were under the impression that the PM was willing to throw down over the mission.

It's really easy to forget the limitations under which Harper is currently operating. His strong stance on Afghanistan represents a significant shift in Canadian foreign policy and these major political changes are extraordinarily difficult to accomplish with a minority government, no less one as mathematically fragile as Harper's. It's easy to be lulled into a false sense of security considering our current political situation. A divided Liberal opposition headed by an unpopular and bumbling "ivory tower" type has allowed the Tories much more leeway than most minority governments of the past. So it's important to remember that the great triumph of the Harper-led Conservative Party has yet to be achieved; a Conservative majority government. This goal seemed all but impossible in 2004 and exceedingly unlikely in 2006. The new Afghanistan plan is a step towards the attainment of a majority government and, despite our legitimate and principled objections, Harper's decision to compromise must be understood as such.

As Dion drags the Liberals kicking and screaming to the left of the political spectrum (leaving a few centrist and right leaning Liberals feeling disgruntled and betrayed by the once-was-but-no-longer-is "Natural Ruling Party of Canada"), Harper has been given the chance to snag the centrist vote on a lot of crucial issues and, as a result, his popularity has slowly but surely climbed until it has begun to teeter on the cusp of a majority. Although setting an exit date seems like rolling over on Conservative values, managing to extend the mission until 2011 is a political achievement. Harper managed to scare the Liberals into an extension without having to worry too much about triggering an election. It's a testament to his political dexterity that he so skillfully diffused a possible election trigger while coming off as principled but still flexible. Strong on the mission but still cognizant of the political realities of our country.

Harper understands that there are only two real exit strategies for a military operation: victory and defeat. Of course, benchmarks should be set based on the achievement of specific tasks, not on arbitrary and politically-motivated compromises. Presently, however, Canadian voters haven't decided whether they're completely serious about the mission yet. I have no doubt that Harper is dedicated to bringing stability and democracy to Afghanistan and I know that millions of Canadians support him but only a majority in the next federal election will free him to commit to the mission completely.

Harper is still in the process of wooing Canadians. The Conservative election victory in 2006 was partly due to an ideological shift in the Canadian electorate, partly due to a well-run campaign, and partly due to a broken and unpopular Liberal party. He has made good use of his two years in office by playing tough with the divided Liberals while slowly consolidating his reputation and convincing Canadians that he deserves to be Prime Minister. We need to let him take his political victories where he can. Changing the political face of a country is a slow process and the concessions our Prime Minister is making are politically necessary.

So let's call the new Afghanistan plan what it really is. This was not a victory for Dion's Liberals; it was Harper's first major move on the campaign trail. He's shooting for a majority government and I'm not alone in thinking that there's a pretty damn good chance he'll pull it off.

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