Monday, January 26, 2009

Answers delivered to an empty kitchen

My habit on Sunday evenings these days is to take my time making dinner and listen to Cross-Country Checkup. I can’t figure Rex Murphy: his columns and opinion pieces tend to irritate me a great deal (even as they sometimes amuse me), more for their style than their substance much of the time … but as an interviewer and discussion moderator he’s top-notch. I really enjoy the conversations on the Checkup, and find myself often answering questions out loud to myself, or arguing with the various callers (this is what living alone does to you).

This week’s topic was, predictably, the inauguration of Barack Obama, and what this will imply for Canada. Perhaps unsurprisingly, my responses to the questions and comments were, um, a lot more spirited than usual—to the point where I was seriously considering calling the show, but didn’t feel like hitting redial umpteen times before getting through, and then probably not making it into the queue. So I thought I might air my thoughts here because, well, that is what blogs are for (i.e. the textual equivalent of speaking animatedly to your empty kitchen).

There were three basic questions that Rex kept returning to:

1. What did you think of the inauguration?
2. President Obama is making his first state visit to us; what kind of relationship do you think he and Stephen Harper will develop? Will they get along, or will there be friction?
3. Obama has made it clear that he wants to exit Iraq, but re-dedicate forces to the mission in Afghanistan—just as the Canadian forces have set a timetable for withdrawal. Does this mean we will be out of sync with the U.S. in coming years?

Given that I answered the first question at length two blog posts ago, I’ll skip it.

On number two, there was a lot of back-and-forth with Rex and his guests and callers about the history of amity and tension between our Prime Ministers and America’s presidents—the general standard being that Conservative PMs got along with Republican presidents, and Liberals with Democrats, while there has tended to be tension when our governments are ideologically out of step. Examples such as Diefenbaker’s loathing of Kennedy, Nixon’s dislike of Trudeau, and the frostiness between Chretien and Bush were cited; conversely, Mulroney and Reagan were peas in a pod and Clinton and Chretien seemed to bear each other no overt aversion. A lot was made, vis a vis Harper and Obama, of the fact that policy-wise, these two leaders are not actually too far apart—that “Democrat” in the U.S. tends to fall into the red tory category here.

This, I felt, was missing the point a bit. Which is not to say I disagree with this assessment: whatever Harper’s more conservative tendencies, especially in terms of social conservatism, they get mitigated by being leader of a country that doesn’t like going to extremes (not all of them, alas, but still). What I’m looking forward to seeing is how Harper deals with Obama’s overwhelming popularity among Canadians, and the popularity of his message of change, of a politics of transparency and bipartisanship, and of moving on from the arrogance and cynicism of the Bush Administration. This might well prove a problem for Harper, who has embraced a politics of attack, reduced the transparency of the PMO, and attempted as best he can to turn it into something with the more autocratic powers of the American executive branch. The American election was a resounding “No! in thunder” to that brand of politics, and Obama still only received 53% of the popular vote, whereas he would have been elected by something on the order of 80% here in Canada. Perhaps now that we the power of that example to look to now, Canadians will be less willing to watch our politicians squabble like spoiled teenagers.

For the third question, Rex insistently kept phrasing it in terms of whether we will find ourselves “out of sync” with the U.S. on Afghanistan. My answer to that would be to say that I hope Stephen Harper, or whoever is PM when that specific push comes to that particular shove, will have the cojones to observe that it is not that we’re out of sync; it’s the U.S. who is now getting into sync with us and everyone else. When our projected withdrawal in 2011 comes around, we will have been in Afghanistan for ten years; and unlike many of the other nations that sent troops, Canadians have been there without caveats about not taking on combat roles—indeed, we’ve been the point of the spear, and have the casualties to show for it. If the Obama Administration puts pressure on us to extend our combat presence, the PM needs to observe that for a decade we’ve been helping hold a rapidly deteriorating line while the most powerful military in the world fought an unnecessary war in Iraq and reduced their strength in Afghanistan to do it. I hope that the PM says at that point that, as far as the “war on terror” goes, we’ve done more than our share and don’t owe anyone anything.

So there’s my two cents. Perhaps next Sunday I’ll actually call in.


Anonymous said...

Yes, call in! Or email. I've read your post twice--not really sure these points weren't addressed in the show...

Chris in NF said...

It's possible -- I didn't catch the last part of the show, so they might have gotten to them.