How Harper checkmated Dion

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National Post, Friday, February 8, 2008

It's been said of Stephen Harper that he plays chess, while others play checkers.

It's very much a chess move that Harper is making today, as the government introduces a binding resolution on the Afghanistan mission in the House. Nobody wants the government to fall over Afghanistan, least of all the Liberals. Which may leave them with no alternative but to bring the government down?over the budget.

It's simple. The budget vote will probably come the first week of March. The Afghan motion won't come to a vote until the end of March. Because a vote on the Afghan mission would be a disaster for the Liberals no matter which way they swing (for reasons explained below), Harper is effectively making Dion force an election through other means.

How did Stephane Dion get himself in this situation? Because he was playing checkers on Afghanistan. He's announced that he has only one possible move: Canada's "combat role" in Afghanistan must end a year from now in February, 2009.

But there's something called the Manley report, offered by a former deputy prime minister of Dion's own party, a classic Canadian compromise: Either NATO steps up and does some burden-sharing in Kandahar, or we're outta there next February. There's enough cover for Dion in that --or should be, at least.

When Dion met with Harper for about 25 minutes early Tuesday evening, he had a chance to buy into the Manley report. Harper handed Dion a copy of the resolution that will be tabled in the House today, invited his comments and said he would entertain any improvements to the language.

Harper's understanding of the way they had left it was that Dion would get back to him the next day. Harper's office says he never heard back from Dion. After consulting his caucus Wednesday morning, Dion said he would be offering his own amendments to the government motion.

That's a different role. Harper was inviting him to be part of a welcome consensus. Dion has chosen a path that leads to an unwanted confrontation in Parliament, one that can now be avoided only by using the budget vote as a pre-emptive takeout.

And what if, in the meantime, Defence Minister Peter MacKay returns from a NATO ministers meeting with the assurance that the alliance is prepared to step up with the Kandahar reinforcements Canada is seeking? If that essential Manley-specified condition is met by our allies, how could the Liberals be out of step with that?

And what was Dion thinking when he agreed to a meeting with NDP leader Jack Layton on Monday, before meeting the Prime Minister on Tuesday? Did Dion think that he could persuade the NDP that Canadian troops should remain in Afghanistan in a non-combatant role? (Layton's position has long been that he will "support our troops by bringing them home.")

And what are Dion's terms for remaining in Afghanistan past next February? "You need to be prepared to fight," Dion said Wednesday, "but the combat role is when you are pro-actively seeking the engagement with the enemy. It's something I have said we will interrupt in February, 2009." In essence, Dion is trying to modify his position, while sticking to it. He is describing rules of engagement that would tie the hands of commanders in the field.

What's worse, the Liberal caucus is itself divided. Many Liberal MPs are of a mind with the NDP, as if there were room for the Liberals on the left. And then there are those leading Liberals, like Michael Ignatieff and Bob Rae, who don't want to be accused of abandoning Afghanistan, to say nothing of our troops.

So rather than go to the polls on Afghanistan, it is the easier course for the Liberals to defeat the government on the budget. That's what happens when one man is playing chess, and the other one is shuffling around his checkers.

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