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the tell

Six years of slogging in the trenches of Afghanistan would be enough to turn most people into hardened cynics. Not Chris Alexander. Canada's former ambassador to Afghanistan is an unabashed idealist - committed to nation-building, still hopeful for that ravaged country, and convinced of Canada's unique ability to help spread democracy in the world.

Now if only he can persuade cynical Canadian voters to elect him. The Harper government has recruited him to run in the high-profile Ajax-Pickering riding, just east of Toronto. It has been Liberal since 1993, and the Conservatives now consider it a crucial battleground for the hearts and minds of area code 905. His opponent, Mark Holland, is a tough and scrappy hometown boy. The Conservatives have been bombarding the riding with visiting cabinet ministers, and even Liberals think the race will be a toss-up.

Mr. Alexander would be a dream candidate for any party. He's young (42), photogenic, smart and likeable, and he has a fabulous résumé. As a foreign service prodigy, he was named Canada's first ambassador to Afghanistan at the tender age of 34, and stayed on as a United Nations special representative until 2009. "When I arrived in Kabul, we didn't even have an embassy there," he says. "We worked our asses off." He immersed himself in Afghanistan's history and culture, and earned wide respect from Afghans and foreigners alike. But for all of his efforts, Kabul and Afghanistan are still a mess.

Once, Mr. Alexander and his Danish-born wife, Hedvig - then seven months pregnant - rashly drove from Kabul to Moscow for fun. He admits that they should have thought twice. "It's the kind of trip you wouldn't do if you knew what it was like," he says. Now, he drives around the suburbs in a Volvo with a baby seat.

He insists that Ajax-Pickering - a riding with plenty of auto workers, commuters, immigrants and vast tracts of new subdivisions - is every bit as stimulating as Kabul. "Afghanistan taught me that nothing will work without the engagement of the people," he says. So he spends his days knocking on doors, engaging with people who are more interested in the location of the GO Transit station than in fending off the Taliban.

Despite the lessons of Afghanistan, Mr. Alexander passionately believes that wise people of goodwill, acting in concert, can help bring democracy to millions, and make the world a better and more just place. He has an unwavering faith in the potential of international institutions to help bring democracy and justice to the darker corners of the world.

His background is what you might call Toronto blue-blood. His father is a prominent lawyer and Joe Clark is a family friend. He was educated at University of Toronto Schools, McGill and Oxford, and has the earnest, faintly patrician air of a John Godfrey or a Michael Ignatieff. He has always been attracted by politics, and he believes that politics is a higher calling. "The Tories I admire have been people who were committed to nation-building, not just to fiscal conservatism and running a tight and clean ship," he says. The Conservatives, he reminds you, gave us a railway and even the CBC.

To some people, this brand of Toryism - and the Pearsonian world view that accompanies it - seem distinctly out of date. They certainly seem out of step with Stephen Harper's pragmatic incrementalism. And after years of high-cost engagement in Afghanistan, with little to show for it, it seems unlikely that Canadians will get enthusiastic about more nation-building.

For a young diplomat, Afghanistan in mid-decade was a heady assignment. Mr. Alexander immersed himself in the place, and became deeply knowledgeable and widely respected. He met everyone, and anything seemed possible. Still, at times he showed a stunning naiveté. In 2007, for example, he called Afghan President Hamid Karzai - an incompetent ruler who tolerates corruption on a vast scale - a "visionary."

The conventional wisdom - shared by Mr. Alexander - is that Iraq was the wrong war, but Afghanistan is the right war.

These days, though, more and more people are in doubt about Afghanistan. In a blistering new book called The Wrong War, author Bing West levels a scathing critique at the counterinsurgency strategy being pursued by both the U.S. and Canadian military. The idea behind this strategy is that victory will be achieved by protecting the local population and creating room for new institutions of governance to be built. The logic was that if we give them money and help, they would give us help back.

But it hasn't worked out that way, Mr. West writes. Instead, what we've built is a vast cultural dependency. Americans and Canadians are fighting and dying while the Afghans by and large stand by and do nothing to help them.

Mr. Alexander is indignantly dismissive of this charge. "Well, that's insulting to the Afghans who have died in the thousands as police, as civilians and as members of the army. If you made that statement in front of an Afghan audience, you would be shouted down."

So why aren't things going better?

Two reasons, he says. "First, the scale of the mission wasn't sufficient until last year, or until even this year." Second, "no sufficient incentive has changed the behaviour of Pakistan." So long as the insurgents have a haven next door, and have the support of a significant faction of the Pakistan army, the war cannot be won.

Mr. Alexander is convinced that the international community could make far more use of institutions such as the UN to bring Pakistan to heel (and he'll be spelling out his ideas in a book, The Long Way Back, to be published this fall). However, skeptics might argue that Pakistan is a failing state whose government can't control the army, that the international community usually can't agree on the time of day and that even the United States is baffled by how to make its ally behave.

Back in Ajax-Pickering, the voters are more interested in the state of the economy than the nuances of counterinsurgency strategy. That's okay with Mr. Alexander. He is just the kind of candidate that Mr. Harper needs to obtain that elusive majority. He is a centrist in his values and unshakably decent.

And he's clearly a potential star, which is why both parties fought to get him. But is he too darn decent, and maybe too naive, for the hyper-partisan bear pit that federal politics has become? How will his idealism survive the gritty reality of life in the trenches? How will his ambition to position Canada as a player on the world stage square with a cautious leader who is not inclined to take risks?

If he wins his knock-down, drag-out fight to get elected, we'll find out.

Margaret Wente is a columnist for The Globe and Mail.

Editor's note: An earlier version of this story included incorrect information about Chris Alexander's academic history. This online version has been corrected.