Patriotism, fear sell war plan

The vote in support of Stephen Harper’s decision to join allied airstrikes in northern Iraq — and possibly Syria — was never in doubt. But Conservatives imported two distinctly American arguments in selling their plan to a divided House of Commons.

The vote in support of Stephen Harper’s decision to join allied airstrikes in northern Iraq — and possibly Syria — was never in doubt. But Conservatives imported two distinctly American arguments in selling their plan to a divided House of Commons.

In essence, they sold patriotism and fear.

The patriotic argument was a variation on the first theme, that in Harper’s Canada, this country takes no free rides.

It was sometimes wrapped in other phrases. When allies call, we respond. It is the Canadian way. We don’t let others do the heavy lifting for us. We do not sit on the sidelines.

“If Canada wants to keep its voice in the world — and we should since so many of our challenges are global,’’ says Harper, “being a free rider means you are not taken seriously.’’

“My Canada heeds the call,’’ said Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird.

“My Canada protects the vulnerable. My Canada does not leave all the heavy lifting to others.’’

While Conservatives have anted up aid money, what Harper and Baird are really saying is global leadership means bombs and those who oppose this — most notably the Liberals — will let others fight our fight.

They are less patriotic.

It is an effective argument, coming from the leader of the country, a man who has been sitting at summit tables for eight years.

It is an argument that likely will be heard again in six months when this campaign is extended, as well as next year on the election trail.

It is effective now, when support is high and voters frame this issue as us standing up to the bad guys, before the support invariably wanes over time.

But it is hardly an infallible argument.

Not all allies have decided that international cachet means flying combat jets. Many are contributing humanitarian aid, an option often derided by Harper’s Conservatives as sending over some blankets.

Germany’s Angela Merkel is one who has chosen blankets over bombs and no one is suggesting that Germany’s global voice will be diminished.

Go to war or be a free rider? “That is small thinking, facile, divisive and unworthy,’’ said Liberal defence critic Joyce Murray.

When called upon to act, said Justice Minister Peter MacKay, we respond.

But surely, when called upon, we decide what to do based on our needs and capabilities.

We don’t just respond and that response need not be — and has not been — military in nature.

This is a government, however, that picks its spots when it comes to heavy lifting and the bottom line is usually economic.

They have clearly taken a free ride on the global threat that is posed by climate change.

In all but confirming this government will not meet its Copenhagen Accord target, Environment Commissioner Julie Gelfand moved it into the international context.

“It’s very difficult for us in Canada to expect other countries to meet their commitments when Canada can’t meet its own,’’ she said.

Conservatives, from Harper on down, have also spoken of the direct threat that the Islamic State poses to Canada.

The threat is never specified. We do not know whether the government is speaking of training bases from which radicalized Canadians could return home to launch lone wolf attacks, or whether they are talking of some type of al-Qaida-style attack on this country, or the vague mention of this country in an audio recording by an ISIL leader.

Canada’s security services say there are at least 30 Canadians who have joined ISIL, although the number is thought to be much higher.

Public Safety also says it is aware of about 80 Canadians who have returned after having travelled for “terrorism-related purposes.’’

But Canada has faced a terror threat since Sept. 11, 2001, a threat that spiked as our profile in Afghanistan grew. The government has so far been vague on how this threat is worse now, but if it is homegrown terrorism and radicalized Canadians, the emphasis should be on measures at home and at our borders, not in a bombing campaign meant to contain the threat.

But by talking about the threat, the Conservatives are reminiscent of the former George W. Bush administration that kept Americans on tenterhooks by changing the colour of the terrorist threat in the wake of 9/11 without providing specifics.

A majority in the House of Commons always ensured passage of Tuesday’s war motion by the Conservatives.

But two days of debate have given us the Tory message going forward, when we will hear a lot more about threats to the homeland and free riders in the opposition.

Tim Harper is a syndicated Toronto Star national affairs writer. He can be reached at tharper@thestar.ca.

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