Playing politics with war

For the first time in his three-mandate tenure, Prime Minister Stephen Harper has failed to secure opposition support for sending Canada to war. The Liberals — among others — claim the prime minister always meant to go it alone; that he wanted to be isolated in Parliament for electoral purposes.

For the first time in his three-mandate tenure, Prime Minister Stephen Harper has failed to secure opposition support for sending Canada to war.

The Liberals — among others — claim the prime minister always meant to go it alone; that he wanted to be isolated in Parliament for electoral purposes.

The Conservatives — among others — argue that Harper is making the best of a less than ideal situation; that he is dealing with opposition parties no longer capable of rising above partisan calculations.

Those who argue that Harper never wanted opposition support for a combat mission point to Paul Calandra’s hapless responses to early NDP queries about Canada’s role in the fight against the Islamic State group.

They see that as a provocation designed to undermine any chance of a parliamentary consensus and subsequently compounded by Harper’s failure to keep his opposition counterparts in the loop as to his thinking on the issue.

They suggest that for the better part of the past year, the prime minister had been looking for an international wedge issue that would distinguish his foreign policy from that of the Liberals, and also resonate in the next election.

From their perspective, Harper saw a golden opportunity not only to divide the Liberals, but also to bring home 2011’s soft Conservative supporters who have been flirting with voting for Justin Trudeau next year.

Scratching the surface, one unearths quiet speculation that the prime minister’s six-month deadline on Canada’s combat role could be meant to give him a window — if circumstances are favourable — to call an early election, so as to seek a mandate to pursue or expand the current mission.

That thesis makes for an irresistible construct for anyone who believes the prime minister is blind to the mission’s political risks or, alternatively, who assumes that governments always have their ducks perfectly lined up.

As it happens, the opposite is more often true.

Polls do show majority support for a Canadian combat role in the fight against the Islamic State extremists. But those polls were done before it became clear that the Liberals and the NDP both oppose the government’s decision.

Harper, who saw support for Canada’s combat role in Afghanistan melt away over time, knows first-hand how irreversibly public opinion can sour on such military undertakings.

And then it is a fact of political life that governments drop the ball, and it is plausible that the Calandra episode was the result of a miscalculation on the part of a distracted PMO.

At the time, Harper’s office had been juggling a NATO summit, a prime ministerial visit to the United Nations and Ukraine’s president delivering an address to Parliament.

Deliberately or not, Calandra ripped a hole in the parliamentary net and provided the Liberals with an opening to swim away from the government.

It is not clear the government saw that coming.

The Conservatives did take for granted that the NDP would not get on board. They had cause to believe the Liberals might.

As opposed to Thomas Mulcair, Trudeau had readily signed off on Harper’s initial decision to send military advisers to the anti-ISIL coalition front, a position he seemed comfortable with, at least until Jean Chrétien described the move as a step on the slippery slope to another Iraq War.

The former prime minister was the first high-profile Liberal to publicly draw a parallel between the fight against Islamic State extremists and the 2003 American-led offensive against Saddam Hussein.

Until Trudeau made an off-the-cuff comment last Thursday clearly dismissive of the combat option, it was still a widespread assumption that his party would support such a mission.

In the same breath, Trudeau also said he believed the Conservatives wanted to trap him into not supporting a combat mission. In any event, at that point the government had already made its bed and was less than 24 hours from lying in it.

The fact is that both the Conservatives and the Liberals sent mixed signals in the pre-war debate. It is hard to know which is worse to believe: that it was by design, or that it was by accident, on either side.

Chantal Hébert is a syndicated Toronto Star national affairs writer.

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