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Jeffrey Simpson

Where in the world is Canada's foreign policy debate? Add to ...

Predictably, the world has disappeared from the federal election campaign, despite the fact that Canadian military forces are involved in two confused and failing overseas missions.

In Afghanistan, we are years removed from the illusion of the famous Canadian general who said we were there to shoot some "scumbags," meaning the Taliban. After years of fighting and dying in Kandahar, Canadians have withdrawn to safer places, having left the province neither peaceful nor politically settled.

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In Libya, we and other members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization rushed to prevent what was feared to be a looming slaughter of the innocents, only to be revealed as innocents ourselves. We do not understand our erstwhile friends in Libya. We do not know what precisely we seek by way of a new government. We have involved ourselves in a civil war whose dimensions we do not know, with weaponry that is useful but not sufficient to be decisive. We have no discernible exit strategy. Once again, we have entered a Muslim country without appreciating its complexities.

As Bismarck once said, try never to enter a war with an explanation that isn't the same at the end as at the beginning. In both Afghanistan and Libya, what we are ostensibly fighting for now is a long way from the initial explanations for combat.

In Afghanistan, we have gone from shooting "scumbags" and keeping the Taliban out of government to trying to create the military conditions that will allow some part of the Taliban into a government whose daily corruption and generalized incompetence have turned important elements of the population against it. The Afghan mission is not going well after all these years, witness to which are recent reports from the Council on Foreign Relations and the International Crisis Group, analysis by sharp observers Ahmed Rashid and Christopher de Bellaigue in The New York Review of Books, and a stream of news reporting.

In part, there is no debate about foreign affairs because Canadians are much less interested in the world than we believe ourselves to be. Remember that foreign policy was also absent from the last campaign's debates, unmentioned by both the parties and the news media.

Another reason for the lack of debate is that no differences exist between the Conservatives and the Liberals on these two wars. The Liberals were first to demand a "no fly" zone over Libya with Canadian participation. They signed on early to continuing the Afghan mission with Canadian soldiers in a training capacity, leader Michael Ignatieff having been a long-time believer in the Afghan mission. Only the New Democrats have asked questions and staked out different positions, but even his party spends almost all of its time talking about domestic issues, because they are the ones that interest voters.

The worst Canadian foreign-policy setback in decades - a humiliating failure to win a seat on the United Nations Security Council - has scarcely been mentioned. That embarrassing flop was entirely the consequence of the Harper government's maladroit foreign policy across the range of issues of interest to UN members - that is, the world. Yet Canadians seemed to shrug off the defeat at the time, cocooned in an outdated self-image of moral superiority, and have all but forgotten the failure.

The government is freezing foreign aid. It is slowing down the increase in the defence budget. It is about to make major naval purchases. It proposes to buy a new fighter jet, the F-35, whose expense has already been shown to be higher than the government suggests by the Government Accountability Office of the U.S. government and the Parliamentary Budget Office.

There are negotiations for a new perimeter agreement with the United States. We supposedly have a pro-Latin American engagement policy, but an internal document from Foreign Affairs reveals it to be hollow in substance, while we impose visas on people from every country in Latin America, including our supposed friends in Mexico.

We have the industrialized world's worst record in combatting the greenhouse gas emissions that cause climate change, an international issue if ever there was one that is changing Canada's geography before our eyes.

There is plenty to talk about in a country hugely dependent on foreign trade and international stability, but apparently not during election campaigns.

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