22 January 2008

The Manley Report

I'll just go ahead and call it that. The high profile Liberal (well, in Canadian politics everything is relative, right?) and his team have delivered their report on the Canadian mission in Afghanistan to the government (the full text is available for download here).

My foreign policy calls are either nonexistent or about as poor as they come (I supported the invasion of Iraq, have absolutely nothing to say about what NATO should do about Kosovo besides accept the inevitable, and on the very pages of this blog have suggested that the U.S. should proliferate nuclear weapons to all Middle Eastern states). Nonetheless, my knee-jerk reactions:

As the Globe and Mail article points out, almost from the start the panel was faced with the government's resolve to maintain the mission through 2011. I also believe - whatever that's worth - that in Manley Harper found exactly whom he needed: a Liberal, out of politics, thirsty enough to do something for his country (or just after the limelight, if you're cynical), with an avowed liberal-internationalist outlook, and no particular disloyalty towards Dion (so that the appointment could hardly be smeared as unfair, political, or whatever). That the panel wouldn't recommend withdrawal in 2009 - or anytime before 2011, or at any specific date - was a foregone conclusion.

What is somewhat noteworthy - though also unsurprising - is that the report recommends that the government make contingent its continued commitment to Afghanistan on an escalation of support from NATO allies, in the form of an increased commitment of 1000 troops to Kandahar. This is in line with the Harper and Bush administration's efforts to secure a greater allied commitment to fighting in the civil war in Afghanistan. It's intended, in part, to put pressure on the allies to put up or risk Canada's withdrawal.

One major problem with this is the possibility that the NATO allies, who aren't good international boy scouts like John Manley, don't care enough to make the commitment. The report's recommendations leave two options: stay in with increased support, or get out (or at least, stop fighting the war). Now, option A is the best-case scenario for the Harper government (and the Americans). Option B is exactly what the NDP and Bloc want. Option A would be what the Liberals would want if they were in government; since they're not, they have to support something else. I've never been convinced that option B reflects the Liberal party's core values and policy preferences, especially since they initiated Canada's involvement in the first place. Maybe it's time for the Liberals to try to fill this policy vacuum?

The report is also a great safety valve for Harper. It presents an opportunity to defuse the electoral impact of the Afghanistan problem: adopt the recommendations, lobby for increased NATO support, and switch tack on the commitment if he doesn't get it. With the help of the Conservative Party's proficient spin doctors, it won't look like the PM is retreating with his tail between his legs: he'd just be following the sound advice of an independent panel headed by a Liberal. And he can claim an honest effort to mitigate the inevitable disappointment of the Bush administration, which is on its way out anyhow.

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