Rudyard Griffiths has been calling for a blue ribbon commission into the future of Canada’s role in Afghanistan for a while. The good news is that the Prime Minister started listening to him. The bad news is that the Liberals are unhappy about it.
To date, the Conservatives have not had an inspired foreign policy. Indeed, they seem to lack confidence on this issue – something that may spring from the fact that this government is built around the old provincial Harris team who obviously didn’t have to think much about the subject. This insecurity – along with a desire to take a politically sensitive issue off the table in time for a possible fall election – has however forced them to adopt Griffiths’ advice.
This is good news for Canadian foreign policy and Canada’s mission in Afghanistan. The current debate on the Afghanistan mission has been mired in partisan battles shaped more by who can exploit the situation for political gain than by assessing what is the best option for Canada. On an issue this sensitive and important a blue ribbon panel can help establish a baseline of facts and set the terms of debate in a manner that hopefully elevate the level of discussion. This will help ensure that the country’s best interests – as opposed to those of a given political party – will be the first and foremost criteria of evaluation. In principal this should make it harder for the NDP and those like Michael Byers who advise them, to continue to call for a unilateral withdrawal without discussing the full consequences of such a choice.
The bad news is that Liberals are in a huff about the fact that John Manley’s appointment as the head of this panel insulates the conservative from a sticky issue in the lead up to an election. I can understand how one would lament the loss of a potential “wedge issue” that might have undermined Conservative support, especially in Quebec. But veiled attacks on Manley paint the party in a bad light. And for good reason. Liberals should be proud of Manley – or any Canadian – who attempts to bring coherence, clarity and a basic level of consensus to a debate of national importance.
Liberals are only mad at Manley because they know that although this commission shows the Conservatives are desperate (they are), it also exposes the shallowness of their own policy on the issue. And let’s be clear, the Liberals don’t have a coherent policy on Afghanistan. The current Liberal position of pulling our troops out after 2009 simply plays off the public’s fears. It does nothing to address the actual goals of why Canada is in Afghanistan. It’s odd to watch the party that championed Human Security and R2P argue for getting the military out of a country where the previous government had a complete disrespect for human rights, marginalized women and generally terrorized its own population. Nor is the notion that “it’s somebody else’s turn” inspiring the public. Either a) this mission is important and so if no one else will do it, we must or b) it’s not, and we should get out (and, by the way, if this was the case why did you get us in in the first place?).
Moreover, let’s talk about the costs of leaving – there are people whose lives will be in significantly greater risk if Canada pulls out and the risks of Afghanistan becoming an operational centre for global terrorism are real. Conversely, let’s talk about the costs of staying – such as the fact that Afghanistan is going to be further destabilized this winter when the Americans start spraying Opium crops with pesticides. If this is the way the US is going to behave, maybe we should leave.
But this is the type of nuanced discussion neither the Liberals nor the Conservatives (it’s not worth mentioning the NDP) are willing to have. All that has happened is that the Conservatives realized that this superficial discussion would hurt them more and so they got smart.
So rather than getting mad at Manley Liberals should start coming up with a coherent policy on Afghanistan.