Monday, March 16, 2009

A Misjudgment Of Historic Proportions II: "We've Come A Long Way. . ."

I will go easy here on New Democratic Party leader Jack Layton, even as he makes yet another "I told you so" attempt, as brazen as last time, to find his way back into the company of grown-ups in the matter of Canada's role in the global commitment to rebuilding Afghanistan and defeating the enemies of the Afghan people. I will go easy on him because he is at least, in his way, trying.

I will go easy on him, as I've done before, because it is certainly not solely his fault that by September, 2006, Canada's NDP - on the matter of Afghanistan and what that poor country's friends should be doing to help its people - had gotten things so badly and so wrong that it had become the laughing stock of every serious political party in the entire developed world. So even the hint of a departure from that state of affairs is a relief.

It's certainly not Layton's fault that the NDP's activist base, by 2006, had become so completely uprooted from its working-class traditions, and so addled by an antique (and curiously American) counterculture pseudo-analysis of Afghanistan's torments, that all the NDP could say on the subject was that it was all about oil or all about the Haliburton-Blackwater global corporate hegemony or something. Or more succinctly, it was all just "George Bush's war." Or as Layton himself was fond of saying, in those moments when he was caught up in flights of his own oratory, it was all just a "George Bush-style seek and kill mission."

If Layton was willing to overlook the fact that Canada was and remains one of 39 countries operating under a United Nations mandate with troops in Afghanistan, at the invitation of Afghanistan's democratically elected government, then the rest of us should be big enough to look the other way now that Layton is insinuating that it has been someone else who has been engaging in "name calling and overheated rhetoric" all this time.

I realize it doesn't help that ever since September, 2006, it's been all "NATO troops out, UN peacekeepers in," and Support The Troops, Bring Them Home, and then after our soldiers are gone we'll send Canadians back, only this time armed with Blackberries, to engage the Taliban in peace talks. It's also true that for nearly three years, the NDP has had no place in the critically important debates about what our soldiers should be doing in Afghanistan, anyway, because the NDP's official party policy has been that our soldiers shouldn't even be there at all. But still.

Let's put it all behind us, Layton now says. Fair enough. We'll try, and it does make it somewhat easier to do when you know that all along, there has been a brave, browbeaten and principled minority of New Democrats who never took the king's shilling in the first place, to borrow a phrase. And if you try hard enough, you can even make yourself forget that from the standpoint of those brave Afghans who traditional New Democrats would flatter themselves to count as comrades, Layton's New Democrats have been backing the other side by arguing for the position staked out by the most retrograde, extreme-right and anti-democratic factions afoot in Afghanistan.

"We've come a long way," Layton begins his National Post essay. I should say so.

Layton starts out this way and then proceeds by dissembling to leave the impression that somehow the whole world, Barack Obama and Stephen Harper included, has at last come around to his way of thinking. Nevermind that, now that George Bush is gone, the opposite is much closer to the truth, because Obama himself has gone to pains to insist that as far as talking to the Taliban is concerned, the White House policy remains unchanged from the Bush days.

And nevermind that when Layton refers to Prime Minister Harper as having "confessed recently" to the likelihood of a semi-permanent background hum of Afghan lawlessness - an expectation that most grown-ups have at least occasionally confessed to harbouring about Afghanistan's prospects for some decades now - the truth is that Harper is first known to have expressed this view, explicitly, almost a full year ago. Damned if I can tell how this would affirm any prescience or foresight on Layton's part, anyway.

So, nothing new there. Besides, even the Globe and Mail's editors got that one wrong, embarrassing themselves in the bargain by making a big hullaballoo about it without even fact-checking so far as to glance at the pages of their own newspaper. So let's cut Jack some slack here, and being really fair, Layton does appear to have been spending some of his spare time brushing up on Afghanistan. Only a year ago he couldn't say whereabouts it was that our soldiers have been in that country, or what they have been doing there, or even for how long.

Further to Layton's credit, when he says "we are seeing a new will emerging to turn the page" in Afghanistan - with the obvious implication that we should anticipate that this new page shall reveal at least some of the right-all-along outlines of Pax Laytonica - there is more than just a grain of truth to it. A disgraceful betrayal of the Afghan people does indeed loom large on the horizon at the moment. The threat of it is everywhere.

To be even more fair, it could be that Layton has struck upon the most efficient way to expedite matters, with this idea of relegating the deal-making to conferences and workshops overseen by a couple of journeymen diplomats who honed their skills with the Arab League and the Organization of the Islamic Conference - the largest and most reactionary anti-democratic voting bloc at the United Nations.

Layton does have one small problem in his timing, though. His elucidations come rather too fast on the heels of an International Crisis Group analysis, released just last week, which sums up just about everything about Layton's 'new' approach, this way: "In most cases, the ideas on offer – from declaring victory and pulling out, to negotiating with the insurgents, to organising regional conferences, to prioritising relationships with favoured individuals and allies over the development of strong democratic institutions – have been tried at least once in the past two decades, with no success: we know now what not to do."

At least there is a kind of consistency to all this.

"Once again, the opportunists are on the rise, seeking anew to make Afghanistan a lawless place — a locus of instability, terrorism and drug trafficking. Their means are desperate: suicide bombs, kidnappings, the killing of government officials and hijacking of aid convoys." So said UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon in January, 2008. He went on: "Almost more dismaying is the response of some outside Afghanistan, who react by calling for a disengagement or the full withdrawal of international forces. This would be a misjudgment of historic proportions, the repetition of a mistake that has already had terrible consequences."

One thing I noticed in his National Post essay is that Layton did not once call for an immediate withdrawal of Canadian troops from Afghanistan. That, I would have thought, is news. Other than that, he appears to be demonstrating an almost uncanny consistency of judgment, in every last respect.

Update: A good Yankee analysis can be found in Afghanistan and The Left (thanks, Mark), and Norman Spector makes some good points here.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

I do not have it in me to be near as charitable as you towards Taliban Jack. Everything he says should be taken with a large grain of salt. I do not know how or when but down the road he will use his actions and words to wreck the hard work that has been put in over there, that is the way he is wired and it will not change.

3:20 PM  

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