Liberals will vote Tuesday on a Bloc Québécois motion against the plan to extend the mission in Afghanistan for training purposes. The vote will likely result in embarrassment for the Grits, because it will expose party divisions.
Just last week, two leading Liberals offered diametrically opposed views on the war. Former leader Stéphane Dion said keeping troops in Afghanistan for training purposes was hardly necessary. "How come those people who won against the Soviet Union need training?" he wondered, referring to the mujahedeen of the 1980s.
While interesting, his evaluation (I had the journalistic fortune of spending time in Kabul back then) amounted to an extraordinary oversimplification.
Next up was Bob Rae, who was just as remarkable. Defending the training mission, he dragged out the ghost of Neville Chamberlain and his Munich Agreement with Hitler. "I want to suggest to people," Mr. Rae stated, "that it is important for us to recall and reflect on that period of time as we try to understand the circumstances in which we find ourselves today."
He appeared to be suggesting that we see the Taliban threat in the context of the Third Reich. It must rank as one of the wildest comparisons the normally judicious and seasoned Mr. Rae has ever made. Is he really that spooked? A modest estimate might be that the Taliban possesses in the vicinity of 1/100th the strength of Nazi Germany.
This tactic, threat inflation, is what Tony Blair and George W. Bush disastrously employed with respect to Iraq and Lyndon Johnson disastrously employed with respect to Vietnam. It is the example set by these types of leaders - their lust for war on the basis of bogus imaginings - that Mr. Rae should be cautioning against.
There is no great harm or danger in Canada extending its training mission around Kabul. We should be doing something with our armed forces, in Afghanistan or elsewhere. But the divergent positions set out by Mr. Rae and Mr. Dion serve as an illustration of the degree of difficulty the Liberals have in presenting a clear and compelling alternative to Stephen Harper's Conservatives. The deficiency is among the reasons the Harperites have become the Teflonites.
The Conservatives, of course, have done a hairpin turn on the Afghan issue, reversing their initial decision to vacate the untameable territory. But the uneven performance by the Liberals will limit any damage.
This week, a big environmental conference gets under way in Cancun, Mexico. Given its inertia on the climate-change file, Team Harper can always be counted upon to pick up a fossil award or two at these colloques. But again, the price they pay is minimized by the work of the Grits. With the abandonment of the Green Shift - the anti-carbon policy introduced by Mr. Dion - the Liberals are not seen as the green team to go to.
The Conservatives recently suffered a defeat at the United Nations in their attempt to gain a Security Council seat. They were also embarrassed over the landing-rights flap with the United Arab Emirates. But neither of those developments has dinted Tory support. In the past 12 months, the only thing that has really stung them was Mr. Harper's decision to prorogue Parliament after his government's serial blundering on the Afghan detainees file. The Liberals did well in that period but have since fallen silent on the detainees affair, and have failed to substantively address Mr. Harper's autocratic style of governance with a wide-ranging democratic reform plan.
No matter what trouble meets the Tories, their numbers hold above 30 per cent. It's not a flattering number, but good enough when the opposition is always doing worse. It's easy to say that the Liberals should provide a strong, clear and unified alternative; doing it is something different entirely. Differences within the party are too frequently on display, and Afghanistan is just the latest example.