"A military operation involves deception. Even though you are competent, appear to be incompetent. Though effective, appear to be ineffective."
- Sun Tzu, ancient Chinese military strategist, in The Art of War, the classic to which Premier Jean Charest said last year he sometimes turns for advice.
Obviously, Charest has followed at least some of the master's advice.
Namely, he's got the part about making the enemy believe he's incompetent and ineffective down pat. He's got them just where he wants them: in a state of overconfidence.
But with only about a year left in his normal term (last Friday was the third anniversary of his government's election), Charest has yet to give any reason to suspect that his critics are underestimating him.
True, Charest is a redoubtable campaigner. In particular, he is a gifted, quick-witted debater, as Bernard Landry learned to his chagrin during the last election campaign .
But being a good campaigner is like being an Olympic athlete: You get to show how good you are only once every four years.
And first you have to get there. An election is a plebiscite on the incumbent, and its outcome is usually decided before the writs are issued.
Or, as Sun Tzu wrote, long before there was such a thing as elections: "A victorious army first wins and then seeks battle; a defeated army first battles and then seeks victory."
It is during the olympiad between elections that the groundwork for victory must be laid. And that's the part of politics - the larger, more important part - that seems to have given Charest the most trouble. His strength is campaigning, his weakness governing.
If he has read The Art of War, he has not always followed its advice.
Sun Tzu wrote that a general must know the lay of the land, the strengths and weaknesses of the enemy and his own. Charest misread the results of the election that put him in power with the votes of only 32 per cent of eligible voters as the default alternative to a worn-out, second-term incumbent government.
Charest overestimated the electorate's desire for change and its willingness to accept conflict with the interest groups defending the status quo. Although his party held a solid parliamentary majority, he was the head of what was really a minority government.
"If you are fewer, then keep away if you are able," Sun Tzu wrote. Instead, Charest sought battle too often from a position of weakness.
And too often, the battles were unnecessary ones he had no hope of winning. Last year, it was full public funding for private Jewish schools, and this year, the sale of Mount Orford to bail out a private developer.
"Those who know when to fight and when not to fight are victorious," says The Art of War. On that score, Charest's judgment is not improving with experience.
Sun Tzu warned against taking on the defenders of a mountain. "The rule for military operations is not to face a high hill and not to oppose those with their backs to a hill," he wrote.
In a pre-election year, trailing badly in the polls and with no margin of error left, Charest could not afford the Mount Orford battle to begin with.
And having sought that battle, he refuses to retreat, although The Art of War sensibly points out "the important thing in a military operation is victory, not persistence." In the case of Mount Orford, Charest's persistence is already jeopardizing his already slight chances of victory in the next election.
Now there is open dissension within Liberal ranks. And "if the army is unsettled, it means the general is not taken seriously," Sun Tzu wrote.
Privately, some Liberals assure each other that any skeletons in the closet of PQ leader Andre Boisclair will come rattling out before the next election (though there is no evidence whatsoever that such skeletons in fact exist).
But The Art of War advises a government with a record to defend to rely on itself. "The rule of military operations is not to count on opponents not coming, but to rely on having ways of dealing with them; not to count on opponents not attacking, but to rely on having what cannot be attacked."
Quotations are from Thomas Cleary's translation of The Art of War, published by Shambhala Dragon Editions.
Charest overestimated electorate's desire for change
Maybe the premier should have another read of The Art of War