Both in the United States and Canada, liberals are holding strategy conferences, seeking to hammer out a program that will bring them back to power in the next elections.
The progressive leaders of the Democratic Party met in Washington, D.C. on June 12-14, and heard speeches by John Kerry, Hillary Clinton, and Barack Obama. The conference, called “Take Back America,” aimed to show the idealists that the party still has room for their high principles, though on most issues, the overall mood was mainly one of pragmatism.
Their Canadian counterparts, who met in Mont Tremblant, Quebec this week, were “big L Liberals” — mostly a gathering of former Liberal cabinet staff, now out of office. Their meeting, which was private, was called “Canada 20/20” and included at least one high-profile American speaker, Al Gore.
I gather from the very different commentators who have been describing these meetings that the American and Canadian quests have a fair bit in common. First, their best opportunity consists in the new chance to become more forward-looking on energy and environment matters, where the conservative politicians have conspicuously failed. Public opinion is changing toward a greater recognition of the necessity to address the looming crisis. That must have been why Gore was invited to the Canadian meeting, ticking off, by the way, the passionate Anti-American strain of nationalistic liberals. (Today’s Globe and Mail features an op ed piece by one Mark Milke that fulminates over Gore’s presence – not by arguing against anything that Al has to say, but only by expressing outrage that, as a prominent person from the enemy state next door, he could have been invited to a Canadian policy conference.)
Personally, I also rather wish that Gore had been present instead in the Washington meeting. (Actually, he may have been in both conference, but I have seen no reference to his having attended the Democratic meeting.) I just wish he were the front-runner today instead of Hillary.
For the same reason, I wish the front-runner in Canada were Stephane Dion instead of Michael Ignatieff. I regret having to say hard things about any Ignatieff, for I loved George (see photo) and Alison Ignatieff, whom I came to knew socially through George’s presidency of Science for Peace, and I like and respect Michael’s brother Andrew, with whom I worked on organizing a conference on Yugoslavia a few years ago. But I won’t vote for Michael, with whom I have argued publicly about nonviolence in Iraq. He supported the American invasion of Iraq and still calls for a highly militaristic, war-fighting Canadian approach in such dangerous spots as Afghanistan. Most other Canadian candidates for the Liberal leadership either want Canada to withdraw entirely from Afghanistan or (in the case of Ken Dryden and Stephane Dion) want to see Canadian armed forces engage there only in peace-building policing activities such as the protection of civilians.
It seems that the most irreconcilable division in the Democratic Party now is similar to that in the Liberal Party: it concerns the proper use of troops abroad. The US meeting was divided most sharply between those who demand that the Bush administration withdraw troops from Iraq right away, and those such as Hillary Clinton, who initially supported the administration’s Iraq War and still fail to oppose it.
Besides the Mont Tremblant conference, the Liberal Party held an official policy debate in Winnipeg last weekend, where the issue of Afghanistan was the foremost controversy. Today’s Globe and Mail’s op ed page was given over mainly to the troubled policies of the Liberal Party. Besides the petulant Milke article (which I am ashamed even to dignify with one mention, let alone two), there was an informative article by Jeffrey Simpson on the 20/20 conference in Quebec, and an excellent piece by Lloyd Axworthy on the Winnipeg conference. I wish Axworthy were going to be the next prime minister instead of, as now, the president of the University of Winnipeg, He was the best foreign minister Canada has had during the 35 years I have lived here.
Paradoxically, he bases his implied criticism of Michael Ignatieff on his support for the principle of “Responsibility to Protect,” a policy that he took the initiative in developing. The ironical thing is that Michael Ignatieff was on the international panel that created the “R2P” document. I guess the dispute between the two men now consists of a difference of opinion about how to interpret and apply that doctrine, which is widely accepted in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs as Canadian policy, and is on the way to being accepted at the United Nations.
The R2P policy has many problems. The most significant one in this context is that it authorizes military action to defend a population whose own state fails to protect. This principle could be invoked (and was, by Ignatieff, along with his acceptance of Bush’s lie about weapons of mass destruction) to justify the invasion of Iraq. It can be invoked, by the same reasoning, to justify the continuing presence of foreign troops in Afghanistan.
But in Axworthy’s mind, it does not justify the current Canadian activities in Afghanistan. Instead of fighting a war on behalf on the Afghan government, he would support the use of troops for protecting civilians. He writes,
“After all, while NATO troops are off chasing the Taliban in the hills, hundreds of schools and mosques are being attacked and their teachers and moderate imams being kidnapped or killed.
“Peace-building, as initially conceived, requires a balanced mix of security and developmental tools and an allocation of equal resources, not the 40:1 ratio favoring military action that presently applies to our mission.”
Hooray for Axworthy and Al Gore. And, presumably, for Dryden and Dion, though I have not read their proposals personally. And boo to Michael Ignatieff and Hillary Clinton.
Onward and upward, liberals!