Opposing for Opposing's Sake

The opposition should limit their criticisms of defence policy to real problems says Steve Saideman.
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October 15, 2012
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Despite residing in Canada for ten years, as an American, I am still befuddled by a great many things in this country. This list includes the role of the Opposition in Canadian foreign and defence policy (oh, and bags of milk continue to confound me). I am once again confused because of a news story focused on the revelation that there are some members of the Canadian Forces still left in Kandahar, with criticisms of that fact levied by Jack Harris, the New Democrat Party’s defence critic. The story raises significant questions, but mostly those questions centre around the meaning and responsibilities of “opposing” rather than the issue itself.

The reality that Canadians are embedded in the militaries of our allies as part of a continuing effort to develop and maintain relationships (“mil-to-mil exchange,” as the jargon goes) is old, old news. After all, Canadians actually went to war in 2003 in Iraq – a conflict Canada deliberately avoided participating in – when the units in which they were embedded were deployed. Most notably, Chief of Defence Staff Walter Natynczyk was Deputy Commander of III Corps, an American unit based in Texas and then deployed to Baghdad. Yanking Canadians out of these units is bad for business. The countries who have received these officers do not treat them as interns or observers, but as members of their units. Having them pulled out undermines the ability of those units to operate. These are lessons learned from the Canadian experience during the Falklands War, when Canada did pull its sailors out of British ships.

So, this story should not be surprising. To be upset at the presence of a few Canadians in Kandahar is almost silly, given that this, unlike Iraq, is a war in which Canada agreed to participate. Yes, there is a risk that these Canadians will be harmed. And yes, it could be seen as violating the letter of the extension agreement of 2008, which said that Canadian operations in Kandahar would end in 2011 – which they did. But the handful of Canadians still on the ground does not violate the spirit of the agreement, as these are not Canadian operations in Kandahar.  The Canadian Forces did leave the province, with only a few individuals now operating in British, American, and Australian units.

So the criticisms levied by Harris really indicate one of two things – either he does not understand the realities of exchange relationships, or he is opposing because the Opposition is required to oppose. A lack of knowledge is something that does plague the Canadian Parliament on defence issues, as multiple reports have concluded. But given that Harris has been involved on defence issues for some time and has shown a great deal of expertise on the F-35, I doubt that he is really that surprised by the news that there are Canadians still in Kandahar. My guess – and it is only a guess – is that Harris is critical of the government because it is his job to be critical of the government. That would be fine, of course, if there was something substantial to criticize. 

The problem is that the duty to oppose the government, which is a serious obligation that makes parliamentary democracy function, can lead to relatively mindless criticism rather than substantial and substantive critiques. The real complaint here that Harris should have made is not that there are Canadians in Kandahar but that this is how we found out about it. Military exchanges are a normal part of being engaged in bilateral and multilateral relationships, which I believe the NDP supports. So, criticizing the normal conduct of these relations, which includes participating in the operations of one’s allies, just makes the NDP look ill-informed or amateurish. Instead, if Harris had accepted the reality but then criticized the government for being secretive, that would have been a fair and legitimate complaint.

I do not mean to pick on the NDP. A better example of a party undermining itself by opposing for the sake of opposing would be the stance the Liberals took on Afghanistan after they lost power to the Conservatives. The Liberals went from starting a mission in Kandahar to opposing it. While it makes sense for the Liberals to argue that the Conservatives were doing it wrong or less optimally, to oppose the mission itself after starting it was more than just confusing. It made the Liberals look like the worst of flip-floppers and undermined their standing as the experts on foreign policy.

Again, these things are strange to me because I am still new-ish, but it seems to me that the best way to oppose the government – to do one’s job as the Opposition – is to focus on sincere differences and real problems. The Liberals started the Kandahar mission, so they should have only opposed elements of it, not the entire mission. Likewise, there is plenty for the NDP to use to criticize this government. The exchange relations is not a worthy target.

Opposing everything the government does raises the risk of becoming the boy who cried wolf. Why should we pay attention to the Opposition if they are always opposed to everything the government does? How do we know when they are raising legitimate concerns? The other problem is that it makes for lousy arguments, as illustrated best by this sketch.

Photo courtesy of Reuters