Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Strategic considerations

Steve V asks where the Libs' Afghanistan capitulation leaves the NDP on the issue. Let's deal with that question - but first, it's important to consider where the parties actually are on the Cons' and Libs' motions.

For all the talk that a deal on Afghanistan is as good as done, Deceivin' Stephen has been careful so far not to say any more than that he's willing to take a look at Dion's amendments, and perhaps consider a new Con motion which incorporates some of the Libs' ideas. It's far from clear that there's even any meaningful agreement as to the principles which should apply to any extension (particularly the question of whether or not to give notice that Canada will leave in 2011), let alone as to the final wording of a motion. And as I've pointed out, the Cons will probably be happy to keep the matter up in the air as long as they can.

Moreover, even if the Cons and Libs do come to a final agreement on wording, there's been no indication that the Cons will move up their planned date for a vote. So we're headed for at least another month and a half of Afghanistan in the news - and the issue will only be even more clearly undecided if the Libs finally decide they're ready to vote down the Cons in the meantime.

So where does that leave the NDP? From what I can tell, there are a number of strategic options - which at least seem likely to result in political gains, and may a real chance of altering the course of discussions.

First, since the discussion of the motions is taking place in public, the NDP can obviously critique and influence some of the ideas being discussed.

In particular, with the Cons looking likely to refuse a firm 2011 end date, the NDP should be eager to amplify the Libs' concern about the possibility of an endless mission, and turn that language against the Libs if (as seems all too probable) they eventually signal an intention to give in to a Con demand to leave the end date open.

Second, the NDP can work with any relatively doveish Lib supporters to push back against the strongarm tactics being used to impose an elite consensus on a party which just weeks ago was taking a strong stand against what it's now agreeing to.

At best, maybe Dion would respond by trying to take back some or all of the ground he's conceded to Harper. And at worst, it'll serve at least to highlight the failure of Dion as a leader who was supposed to reflect the Libs' progressive grassroots, and perhaps help to shift centre-left swing votes in the NDP's favour.

Finally, the NDP can highlight the position it's held all along to the effect that an unjustified mission isn't worth sticking to just because of a previously-determined end date. Recently, this hasn't been a particularly prominent feature of the NDP's message - likely due to the relatively small gap between the time when withdrawal could practically take place and the presumptive 2009 end date.

But if it looks like an extension to 2011 or beyond is in the works, then the costs of staying to that date look a lot more severe. Which should offer the NDP an opening to ramp up its critique of Canada's role in Kandahar generally, rather than being tied up in a dispute as to end dates.

It's worth noting that for all the potential benefits to the NDP in the above options, I'd still prefer if Dion had stuck to his supposed principles in order to put an end to the current mission structure. But the NDP certainly isn't lacking for ways to respond to the changed situation - and Layton and company should only be better off in the next election for once again being the only national party in Parliament to stand up to the Cons.

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