Now is not the time for MacKay to leave

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Sun Media, Friday, November 12, 2010

At a Remembrance Day gala in Toronto on Wednesday night, Defence Minister Peter MacKay was put in the awkward position of having to deny he was about to follow Jim Prentice out of cabinet and into the private sector.

Less than a week after Prentice stepped down to become vice-chair of CIBC, MacKay denied he was in talks to join Gowlings, a national law firm.

“I’ve got the best job in the country and I’m thrilled to be here,” MacKay told reporters at the glittering black-tie benefit for military families.

“I have no plans to leave this job.”

Let’s hope not. Just as Prentice’s exit as environment minister was a perfectly staged getaway from politics, so too would it be the worst possible time for MacKay to leave his present portfolio — at the very moment Canada is negotiating an extended stay in Afghanistan.

Canada is looking at downsizing our contingent from 2,500 to less than 1,000 troops, and the mission re-profiled from a combat role in Kandahar to training Afghan soldiers and police in Kabul.

With a NATO summit in Lisbon next week, where Prime Minister Stephen Harper is likely to announce the renewed-but-reduced Canadian commitment, one which should largely remove our troops from harm’s way, it is not an appropriate time for MacKay to leave his post. And he would be the first to say so.

These negotiations with the Americans and other NATO partners are at a delicate stage. The prime minister maintains any training role would be “inside the wire” in Kabul, while the Americans are pressing us to mentor Afghan trainees “outside the wire” as well.

The U.S. ambassador to NATO, Ivo Daalder, has gone to extraordinary lengths, giving an interview in which he publicly put pressure on Canada to accept a mentoring role.

“Yes,” he said, “they go outside the wire and depending on where they are they may face an environment that’s less than safe.”

It’s one thing to be pressing the government through diplomatic and military channels, and quite another to be leaning on it in public.

The Americans went missing in action during Canada’s failed bid for a non-permanent seat on the UN Security Council last month. Their UN ambassador, Susan Rice, who is married to a Canadian, was away from her post in Africa, and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton didn’t lift a finger for us, nor did U.S. President Barack Obama make so much as a phone call on Canada’s behalf.

Yet before the Indian Parliament this week, and in front of the whole world, Obama endorsed India’s bid for a permanent seat on an expanded Security Council.

And then the Americans come knocking at our door again, asking us to assume a role that could involve our troops being placed in harm’s way once more, when Canada’s casualties in Afghanistan, 152 dead and hundreds wounded, are already disproportionate.

Harper is the man who has to make the phone calls to the families of the dead, and he has called it the hardest part of his job as prime minister. He shouldn’t have to think very hard about this — of course we should stay, in the name of burden sharing, and as a reliable NATO ally of the U.S.

But we’ve held the fort in Kandahar and paid a heavy price.

That should be our message. Harper and MacKay are the messengers.

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