On Afghanistan, Harper Has Always Put Politics First

Here is one argument Prime Minister Stephen Harper can make to defend his purchase of F-35 jet fighters: “No one can predict the future and no one knows what challenges Canada’s military will have to meet in the decades ahead. This is why the military must be equipped with jets capable of carrying out a wide range of roles, in concert with our allies, well into the 21st century. The F-35s are those jets. The Liberals object to the contracting process but they do not, and cannot, deny that the military needs new jets. And we are getting the job done.”

Here is another argument he can make: “The Liberals are rotten creeps who put politics first and don’t care if they kill jobs and people.”

Anyone who has followed Stephen Harper’s political career will be familiar with his habit of attacking the motives, character, patriotism, moral worth, and personal hygiene of those who disagree with him. Thus, it was predictable which of the two lines of argument the prime minister would choose.

“The opposition is simply playing politics with the lives of air force members and with jobs in the Canadian aerospace industry,” Harper said on the floor of the House of Commons recently. He repeated the charge in an address to aerospace workers. “It is about lives. And, as you well know, it is about jobs.” What it is not about is politics, he huffed. It “is not a political game.”

Indeed. Hypothetical wars that may or may not be fought at some unknown time in the future are important matters. Lives may be at risk. Hypothetical lives, but still. It would be irresponsible of a politician to play political games when so much is at stake.

Lives at risk in actual wars happening right now, however, are another matter entirely.

“There will be some who want to cut and run, but cutting and running is not my way, and it’s not the Canadian way,” a newly elected Prime Minister Harper declared to cheering troops in Afghanistan in 2006. In late 2006, when NDP leader Jack Layton suggested the conflict be resolved by convening negotiations with the Taliban, he was hooted down. “Taliban Jack,” the Conservatives called him. “Is it next going to be tea with Osama bin Laden? cracked then-foreign affairs minister Peter MacKay.

No one’s having tea with Osama bin Laden these days but every interested party and informed observer now agrees that negotiations with the Taliban are right and necessary. And the Conservatives agree. Indeed, the prime minister recently claimed his government supported negotiations all along.

The prime minister has been equally unwavering on how the mission would end. Not with a deadline, the prime minister said. That would just invite the enemy to dig in and wait. “You know that we can’t set arbitrary deadlines and simply wish for the best,” Harper insisted in 2007.

That lasted until the first week of the next election campaign. Early one morning, at a breakfast with journalists, Stephen Harper announced that the mission had an arbitrary deadline. It was July, 2011.

The government was as adamant about this new deadline as it was about the need to avoid deadlines. Come the deadline, the troops leave. Period. When Liberal foreign affairs critic Bob Rae said his party would be willing to talk to the government and NATO about some sort of new mission after the deadline, Harper categorically rejected the offer. “Canada’s military mission will end,” he said. When pressed about the possibility of “wiggle room,” Peter Kent, then minister of state for foreign affairs, said “there’s no wiggle room at all.” At the beginning of 2010, Harper was even blunter. “We will not be undertaking any activities that require any kind of military presence, other than the odd guard guarding at the embassy.”

At the end of 2010, Harper announced a new training mission which will keep more than 1,000 soldiers in Afghanistan.

War is unpredictable and if realities on the ground had compelled the prime minister’s many about-faces, they would be defensible. But realities on the ground had nothing to do with his endless manoeuvring. It was politics. Usually domestic. Sometimes international. But always politics.

So how does he get away with it? How can a prime minister who has spent five years playing politics when lives are at stake denounce his opponents for playing politics when lives are at stake — and not be jeered off the stage?

Partly, it’s because Michael Ignatieff and Bob Rae have put their support of the mission in Afghanistan ahead of their political interests, even at the risk of party unity. Harper’s latest about-face was so startling, so utterly contrary to everything he said, over and over, the Liberals could have gutted him. But they didn’t. Because they support the new policy.

As a reward for being so high-minded, the Liberals are now tarred as the party that would put politics ahead of the lives of those in uniform by a prime minister who has consistently put politics ahead of the lives of those in uniform.

Brazenness like this hasn’t been seen in a very long time.

In the years leading up to the election of 1968, “(Richard) Nixon had taken just about every possible position on Vietnam short of withdrawal,” writes Rick Perlstein in Nixonland. Negotiation is “appeasement.” Negotiation is essential. Escalation is the right way to go. Escalation is a terrible mistake. More bombing. Stop the bombing. Every change in position was blatantly pitched to the politics of the moment, driving informed observers crazy, but the gyrations made no difference to Nixon’s fundamental image as the tough, pro-military, anti-Communist hardliner. Such is the power of image.

Nixon won big in 1968, of course. If Harper does the same this year or next, he, too, will be indebted to the blinding power of image.