06 September 2006

Who is setting Canada's Foreign Policy?

Peter Mansbridge hosted Jack Layton and Peter MacKay for a quick debate on Afghanistan on tonight's The National. I guess Gerard Kennedy was busy - he's the guy who should be debating it because he's been setting the agenda for the foreign policy debate since August 29th. That was when Gerard Kennedy announced his Afghanistan policy. He noted that Afghanistan has an opium crisis and a development crisis in addition to a security crisis, and said that "use of force should be balanced with extensive, visible and effective development efforts." While Kennedy called for short- and long-term solutions and a "mandate for real success," tonight Layton was on The National with two Peters calling for a withdrawal.

In all fairness, Layton has made statements previously about his being concerned about our drift into war (like this one, from December 2005, or this one from January 2006). These comments show Layton was concerned about operational, and perhaps political, drift. I think the calls for a pullout only started on August 31st, where Layton mentioned the lack of balance, specifically in humanitarian and reconstruction. It's consistent with his previous position that he would call for an end to our involvement when this drift manifests itself, both operationally(in terms of a shift in operations to the south) and a politically (mostly in phrases like 'support the troops' and 'stay the course,' but aided and abetted by a gradual acclimatization to news of war dead). Nonetheless, both the timing and the underlying policy seem Kennedy inspired.

Layton wouldn't just plagiarize from Gerard Kennedy; he takes it a step further and states outright that we should withdraw by February. In that I think he goes too far. Kennedy's comments indicate that we are to use our status as significant contributors to engage our allies (and I imagine this includes both those currently participating and those not) in setting a new direction for our forces. Failing that we should pull out, but if we unilaterally pull out we will have lost the leverage to bring our allies to the table. If we want to effect any positive change there at all, we have to use what influence we have to do it.

Ultimately I though Jack seemed a bit uncomfortable with the new line - maybe that will pass in time. Peter MacKay had no trouble staying on message, but I took two particular things from his comments.

Firstly, he suggested that Layton was being 'disingenuous' for saying that we can support the troops but not the mission. That's ridiculous, and it's the sort of crap that phrases like 'support the troops' encourage. Any real support for the troops has to acknowledge that they're the ones who do the dying part of this bargain, and so we at least owe it to them to constantly assess whether we should be asking them to do it. I can't help but feel that if we did otherwise, it would be because we had just become accustomed to lives being lost, and that the lives lost while we were distracted had some how been gradually reduced until the marginal loss of life was just not worth weighing.

Secondly, he stuck to message on not talking with the Taliban. Incidentally, Kennedy also takes this position. But MacKay rhetorically asked if we would "sit down for tea with Osama bin Laden." Now, some candidates have trouble with hypotheticals, but given recent events in this leadership contest I wonder if this isn't a useful one. Wouldn't it be an interesting discussion? Wouldn't obtaining Osama's co-operation be a remarkable accomplishment to weigh against the supposed costs? Ultimately, isn't the only fate for an enemy with whom you cannot negotiate utter annihilation? Is that really where most people are at on this issue? I sure hope not - sounds awfully extreme to me.

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