Let us now give thanks for Gilles Duceppe. Let us erect statues to his memory. Let school children across the country recite poems in his honour. For the Bloc Quebecois leader, though he certainly did not intend it, may have single-handedly saved the Afghanistan mission, and with it Canada's reputation as a reliable ally.
Until last week, the opposition -- or that section of the opposition, made up of the Liberals and Bloc, who had not joined the NDP's call for an immediate withdrawal of Canadian troops -- had successfully presented their position as something other than desertion in the face of the enemy. Under the Liberal-Bloc plan, Canadian soldiers would not be withdrawn from Afghanistan altogether -- just from the fighting. And we would not lay down our arms immediately, but only after our current mission expires, in February, 2009.
Though our troops are there at the behest of NATO, opposition rhetoric portrayed this obvious snub to NATO -- the secretary general of NATO was only lately in this country, pleading with us to stay the course -- as a pro-NATO policy. Our refusal to fight past our own unilaterally defined deadline was surrounded with hearty references to having "done our part," as if in some sort of agreed-upon rotation. So successful was the opposition at this game that the Prime Minister, merely by restating the truism that the mission could not be renewed without "some degree of consensus" in Parliament, i.e. the support of at least one other party, was widely observed to have conceded the fight, if not endorsed their position.
So Mr. Duceppe's statement last week, demanding that the Prime Minister state explicitly, in what is expected to be a new Speech from the Throne this fall, that Canadian troops will be withdrawn from combat at the expiry of the current mission, or face defeat in a confidence vote, has achieved several things. First, it has made clear that the Prime Minister, contrary to a number of torqued headlines ("Troops out by '09, Bush told") and the crowing of certain columnists, has never said he would pull Canadian troops out, whether by February, 2009, or any other arbitrary deadline. That will give heart to some Conservatives, who might otherwise have been led to believe there were no differences between the parties on this defining issue.
Second, with his customary subtlety and exquisite sense of timing, Mr. Duceppe has made hash of the opposition's careful public relations strategy: the statement came one day after two soldiers from Quebec were killed in an explosion (another had been killed a few days before), a connection Mr. Duceppe made no attempt to deny. If there is a more precise definition of cutting and running -- Casualties? Get us out of here -- I do not know it.
That is indeed the closest thing we have had to an explanation of the opposition position. We know they want Canadian troops withdrawn, but until now it has never been made clear why. They can have no complaint with the mission's legality: our troops are there under a United Nations' mandate, with the support of the democratically elected government of Afghanistan. Nor, outside of the NDP, do they pretend the Afghans do not need defending. Someone has to do the fighting, they concede--just not us.
And the reason we should be excused? That much is now clear, if it was not before: Because it involves hardship, and because they hope to appeal to that section of the public that believes hardship is unnecessary -- that our enemies can be defeated without hardship, if they must be defeated at all. All that guff about having "taken our turn" was always a smokescreen.
Who, after all, is it suggested will step forward, as we retreat? Answer: nobody. "Find another country," is all the Liberal defence critic, Denis Coderre, will say. "Another country should replace us," Mr. Duceppe vaguely agrees. The reality is we would be abandoning our allies, the British and the Americans, at the pointy end of the campaign. Far from encouraging the others -- the French, the Italians and so on-- to do more, the greater likelihood is that our departure would further demoralize public opinion
in those countries. If the Canadians aren't willing to fight, many will say, why should we? And so a reputation as military freeloaders -- remember John Manley's image of us excusing ourselves to go to the bathroom when the bill comes due? -- that had only just begun to be rehabilitated will once again be confirmed.
It will be interesting to see how Mr. Duceppe's gambit is received in his native province. It is noteworthy enough that a country that lost upwards of 100,000 men in two World Wars should be so unnerved by the 60-odd casualties -- about one a month -- we have sustained over five years in Afghanistan. But can it really be true that in Quebec, all it takes is three? Is that how Quebecers see themselves? Is that how they would like to be seen by others? More to the point, is that what will decide the defence and foreign policy of this country?
I suspect not. I suspect that the wave of revulsion Mr. Duceppe's statement has stirred in other parts of the country will wash over Quebec as well, and that this country will discover again those reserves of self-respect that are hidden to so many of its leaders.