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Monday November 10, 2008 2:10 pm

Polar opposites - Canada/US relations and Afghanistan

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I don’t know how frequently Filibuster Soup readers have a glance at the major Canadian dailies like the National Post or the Globe and Mail, but in the last month an astonishing thing has happened between my Canadian homeland and the U.S.

Canada is now the right-wing country, and America the left.

Read More | National Post

American lefties no longer have a place where they can threaten to move to when the the liberal chips are down!  Canada a socialist haven?  No more.  Stephen Harper and the Conservative Party of Canada (gotta love how they wear their designation on their sleeves up here - the official opposition is named the Liberal Party) seized a second minority government in the Oct. 14 general election, simultaneously leaving the other three (left-of-center) options in the political hinterland.

It’s tricky territory, however.  All but the most staunch Canadian right-wingers will sheepishly admit that much of the Conservative Party’s success is due, at least in part, to vote splitting.  Not long ago it was the conservative vote that was lost to bickering and in-fighting among two different options (the Canadian Alliance and the Progressive Conservative Party) while the Liberals enjoyed strong majorities with only intermittent failures.  Canadians, by and large, identify as more liberal than their southerly neighbours.  Spend any time around Canadian youth, academic circles (as I do, being a university student), or Liberal strongholds like Toronto, and you’ll find that there was some immense support for Barack Obama up here.  It’s no exaggeration to tell you that my campus bar was far busier on Nov. 4 than it was a few weeks ago when the Canadian election was held.

It begs the question - how will Stephen Harper and his more powerful Conservatives encounter the Democratic juggernaut that is the American government?  At helm is the world’s most popular man, and that point is surely not lost on Harper. 

I’ve heard some conjecture that an Obama presidency might be good for Harper.  Any attempts to make nice with the Obama administration will be VERY public in Canada, and will do much to dispel the smirking nickname that Harper (unfairly) earned as George Bush Jr.  It will allay fears of some secret right-wing Conservative agenda, and nobody can deny that Obama’s shine can lend remarkable goodwill from our European brethren.

The most important way that Harper can utilize the Obama administration is this: it will allow him to be seen negotiating, deal-making, but ultimately sticking to his guns with made-in-Canada policies.  Never, EVER underestimate the power that “made-in-Canada” phrase has up north.  Canadians, spurned on especially by the Canadian media, have a massive inferiority complex that stems from being the US’s closest neighbour.  I have a feeling that even a Conservative mandate, one that disagrees with an Obama mandate, might be supported by the Canadian left if it can be marketed as a home-grown promise.

This bring us to my delayed point - a recent opinion piece from the National Post that expresses concern over whether or not Harper will be able to stick to the promise he made in the general election, to remove Canada from Afghanistan by 2011 and thus bringing our presence there to a full decade, in the face of Obama’s campaign promise of increasing American focus on that troubled region.

Stephen Harper and Barack Obama, ideological opposites though they may seem (and probably are), have one thing in common: both suffer from the accusation of being austere, intensely private, and generally successful at keeping their personal lives and motivations a mystery to the public at large.  How Obama pulled off that trick in the midst of the media circus that was the 2008 election is beyond me - it was either a miracle of prudence, or some would have us believe it to be willful blindness on the part of the American media.

Stephen Harper’s key to success has always been chalked up to his rumoured bullish temperament when provoked, and the control he has exerted over the members of his Conservative Party.  Nobody is in doubt as to whom to credit with the Conservative’s success.  It has, and always likely will be, attributed to Stephen Harper and his firm grip over the party and its players.  Argue for or against it, but there is no denying that it was exactly what the party needed, and it has served them well so far.

It’s that same temperament that will serve Harper well in the face of the world’s most popular man, the candidate for Hope and Change.  I’ll take off my hat as a scary Conservative war-monger and say this - there is nothing to be gained by bending to the will of an Obama administration.  Afghanistan is a testy issue and many Canadians want out (Canadians not having the stomach any more for pretty much military engagement of ANY description).  Harper’s willingness to face down the request of an extended Middle East campaign, one that I have no doubt will eventually come, is the key to his longevity as Prime Minister.  He can market it as the perfect “made-in-Canada” solution and achieve three absolutely KEY goals for any Canadian government: maintain Canadian autonomy even under the influence of American pressure (a sore spot for hordes of Canadian lefties), keep his campaign promise, and shockingly, satisfy the Canadian left by lessening Canada’s military activity.

There is one smaller detail for you to mull over: with Obama’s promise of a more isolationist USA following years of unpopular involvement overseas, now may be the chance for Harper to drag Canada kicking and screaming back to the world stage.  Make some noise about our humanitarian involvements, renew the image of the Canadian military force, and make sure we reach a strong finish in Afghanistan.  Harper has dedicated millions to finding an AIDS vaccine for disease-stricken countries around the world - this is also part of the new image of Canada.

It’s funny, but one could have easily imagined the tables to be turned in a scenario like this - a Republican government urging a soft Liberal or NDP government in Canada into increased military activity. 

Strange days indeed.

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