Pain don’t hurt

I agree with just about every word of Wesley Wark‘s piece in today’s Ottawa Citizen, in which he argues that Canada’s policy on Omar Khadr has finally run up against “a realpolitik wall.” The new administration in Washington will want the remaining detainees at Guantanamo dealt with once and for all, and that means, like it or not, that Khadr must and shall come home. So, Wark suggests, let’s get on with figuring out how best to manage that eventuality. (The government, naturally, will have none of it.)

It’s only at the very end that I’d niggle with Wark’s argument. “Reversing course on Omar Khadr will be painful for the Conservative government,” he says. That makes sense intuitively, but recent weeks have brought the idea of political pain into focus. The Harperites are frantically jettisoning long-held economic principles, taboos and shibboleths as if Death himself was gaining on them in a speedboat race. Recession! Deficits! Corporate welfare, over the side! For the love of God, faster! That’s politically painful stuff, or it ought to be, especially given Stephen Harper’s still-wet assurances that the economy was pretty much okay. (We shall see how much of a price the Harperites do, in fact, pay, though logically it will have far more to do with what happens next than what’s happened so far.)

But repatriating Khadr? All our government has ever said is some variant on, hey, there’s a legal process underway in the United States, and aside from assuring he’s treated humanely, we’re going to let that process run its course. It was complete bollocks, of course; the legal process is a sham and he wasn’t always treated humanely. But if President Obama decides to abandon the legal proceedings against Khadr, it’s moot. Ottawa’s completely off the hook, politically. “Fine,” Lawrence Cannon can say, “the process has run its course. Now, at Washington’s request, we’re bringing him home under the following conditions.” The only people who would would have cause to be upset would have no cause to be upset with the Canadian government, but rather with that damn fool Obama for closing Gitmo.

It’s a minor point, but it’s all-important—because, as Wark says, the idea that advocating for Khadr’s repatriation would take a heroic effort, or would be an insult to Washington, was fundamental to the government’s strategy. But it was, and remains, bollocks, as evidenced by the simple fact that Khadr is the last remaining Westerner at Guantanamo. If Obama does indeed force Ottawa to do the right thing, even if it’s only because Washington finally stops doing the wrong thing, I hope everyone takes note of the political price the government has to pay. If the price is zero, as I suspect, then I’m naive enough to hope doing the right thing might even catch on.

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