Dion stumbles on war

In attacking Afghan mission, he's drawing attention to Liberals' role in the war

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The Gazette, Friday, September 14, 2007

Barring a serious incident in Afghanistan in the next two days, Canada's mission there will not really be a ballot question in next Monday's three Quebec by-elections.

But Afghanistan was apparently very much on Stéphane Dion's mind on Wednesday as he held a news conference with Jocelyn Coulon, his handpicked candidate in Outremont. It was the Liberal leader's second appearance with Coulon in as many days. They previously hit the Outremont métro stop together in a successful photo-op.

The frequency of Dion's appearances in the riding are an indication of what's at stake on Monday. With the Liberals certain to finish well out of the race in the two other by-elections off the island of Montreal, winning Outremont is a must for Dion. A Quebec leader of the Liberal Party of Canada cannot go zero for three in his own province. Besides, Coulon isn't some guy who stole the nomination; Dion personally appointed him for his legitimate credentials on foreign policy.

However, it wasn't Coulon's foreign-policy views that made headlines yesterday, but Dion's slashing attack on Stephen Harper for "misleading" the House before the May 2006 vote extending the mission in Kandahar to February 2009. Moreover, Dion said the 24 Liberal MPs who supported the motion were wrong to have done so. "They believed the government," Dion explained.

In other words, not only were they wrong, they were duped.

This is a major unforced error on Dion's part. Among the 24 Liberal members who supported the motion were Bill Graham, the party's interim leader and former defence minister at the time of the deployment to Kandahar, and Michael Ignatieff, now deputy Liberal leader and lead voice on Afghanistan.

Hey, let's get Iggy on the phone and ask him if he was not only wrong, but stupid. As for Graham, don't get him started on that vote. When a Tory member crossed the floor to thank him for his support, Graham gestured behind him and said: "Some of those guys actually voted for this in cabinet."

That would be back in 2005, when the Martin government re-deployed Canada's mission from the street patrols of Kabul to the counter-insurgency against the Taliban in Kandahar province. One of the guys who supported it was Stéphane Dion, then the minister of the environment.

In opposition a year later, three-quarters of the Liberal caucus, including Dion, did an about-face and voted against extending a mission they had authorized in government. At least Dion showed up for the vote, unlike his former leader, Paul Martin, who sent our troops into harm's way as prime minister and then couldn't be bothered to vote on extending a mission he had ordered.

Looking back on it now, Dion accuses the Conservatives of resorting to "unprecedented blackmail" in precipitating the vote after a one-day debate, without consulting NATO or the Afghan government.

"Canada was in an improvised situation because the government wanted to look strong in front of he opposition," Dion declared in a Presse Canadienne report yesterday. "For narrow, partisan reasons, it improvised an intervention such as that in Afghanistan without any negotiation with our allies."

An improvised intervention? Our troops were already there, sent there by Dion and his Liberal colleagues when they were in government. The May 2006 vote simply extended their presence for another two years. If NATO was not consulted, it was certainly grateful.

What got Dion so riled up? The immediate cause was a statement by Harper's Quebec lieutenant, Lawrence Cannon, that the Liberal government acted "irresponsibly" in authorizing the mission "without knowing the consequences."

Dion was also responding to Harper's statement in Australia last weekend that there was no need for an immediate debate and vote in the House on the fate of the mission in 2009. And this after the PM had been saying since last June that the mission wouldn't be extended further without a parliamentary consensus. This means no extension, since the Liberals, NDP and Bloc Québécois all want to leave Kandahar, though only the NDP wants to cut and run by quitting Afghanistan altogether.

But, presumably, there will be a vote on Afghanistan - in the throne speech, which is expected to outline the future of the mission. And that vote will pre-empt any opposition days and debate in the House.

So what was Harper saying last weekend? He was trying to flush out the Liberals, and Dion tumbled right into the trap. By angrily returning to the vote on the mission in 2006, Dion made it about its Liberal origins in 2005.

This isn't very smart.

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