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norman spector

Some Canadians - as The Globe comment boards often demonstrate - have never trusted a word out of Stephen Harper's mouth. Including the ands and the buts. Others only came to the view that he's economical with the truth after he became prime minister - as invariably happens, to a greater or lesser degree, in a parliamentary democracy. However, a leader can only mislead the people so often before the bond of trust essential to obtaining the consent of the governed is irrevocably broken. If you need proof, turn your eyes to British Columbia, where Premier Gordon Campbell is on his death bed just months after the high of the 2010 Winter Olympics.

With his change of mind on leaving Canadian troops in Afghanistan, Mr. Harper runs the risk of re-playing the Campbell scenario. For, his decision represents not only a flip-flop on the end date of the mission, which is serious enough. In refusing to allow MPs to vote on the decision, it's also a betrayal of a commitment he made while campaigning for his high office. A commitment that he reiterated after becoming prime minister. A commitment on the most important decision a prime minister can make - sending young Canadian men and women to participate in a war.

Trying to square the circle by increasingly ridiculous analogies - yesterday's being comparing the Haiti relief operation to continuing with a war we've been in for nearly a decade - only makes Mr. Harper's predicament worse. Given the views of Canadians on this issue - as well as statements suggesting he himself has lost confidence in the prospects of success - you have to wonder why he'd be running the risk to his credibility.

In yesterday's Ottawa Citizen, Colin Kenny - once an aide to Pierre Trudeau, now a Liberal senator who specializes in defence matters - provided the answer:

When we talk about making tough foreign affairs decisions, we are talking about defending and advancing the interests of all Canadians. Anyone who thinks that having a president in Washington convinced that you have betrayed him when he needed you the most is not coming to grips with Canada's interests…. It has been reported that Stephen Harper gulped at the press conference in South Korea before answering a question as to whether he had changed his position on remaining in Afghanistan after 2011. I would have gulped too. There is no easy way out of this one.

Senator's Kenny's way of thinking about this issue explains how Canadian troops got so deeply involved in Afghanistan in the first place: for Jean Chrétien, the commitment to Afghanistan meant not having to say yes when George W.Bush came calling for troops to join the Iraq war. And for him and for his successors until this day, it meant being able to tell the Americans that, notwithstanding the decision not to participate in that war, Canada is still a reliable ally.

Mr. Harper, however, has one card to play that was not available to Mr. Chrétien in his dealings with Mr. Bush. As prime minister in a minority government, he cannot commit Canada absolutely to any course of action. In this, his situation will be familiar to a U.S. president, who must seek the advice and consent of the Senate for many undertakings made to foreign leaders - a requirement that has burned Canada more than once in the past.

If Stephen Harper concern is, as Senator Kenny writes, for Canada's national interests, he has nothing to fear from losing a vote in the House of Commons. It would therefore be in his interests, and ours, that he put the new Afghanistan mission to a vote. Either before he heads out to Lisbon, or upon his return - in which case he must explain to the NATO allies that any commitments he makes at the meeting are subject to House of Commons approval.

Approval that should only be obtained if the majority of our elected representatives believe that continuing on in Afghanistan is the right thing to do.

It's called democracy - parliamentary democracy, to be precise.