Harper on Afghanistan and the economy

On the PM's interview with CNN

UPDATE: Harper hasn’t reversed himself on Afghanistan

After reading a transcript of Fareed Zakaria’s much-discussed CNN interview with Prime Minister Stephen Harper, I was left pondering two points Harper made, or failed to—one on Afghanistan, one on the economy.

1. The news out of the interview came when Zakaria asked what Harper would say if President Barack Obama requested a longer Canadian military stay in Afghanistan. Harper answered, in part: “I would have a question back for him. And that question would be: ‘what is your plan to leave Afghanistan to the Afghans so they can govern it?’”

Given that Canada has more hard-earned on-the-ground experience in Kandahar than any coalition partner, wouldn’t it make more sense for Harper to be suggesting—even insisting—what needs to be done, rather than asking a new President, who, after all, has much less background on the file, to propose a plan?

So Harper might reasonably have been asked, where is Canada’s road map to success, of some sort, in Afghanistan? (I think Canada should be spearheading a push to revive last year’s aborted plan to put a forceful, respected leader in charge of unifying the bewildering range of international aid and diplomatic efforts in Afghanistan.)

2. When Zakaria switched to the economy, his tone was basically congratulatory—how has Canada avoided the worst of the financial meltdown and the global recession. “What should we do to get out of this mess?” he asked, implying, rather flatteringly, that a leader from well-regulated, sensible Canada might just have the answer.

Well, Harper didn’t. He offered a rather apologetic defence of Keynesian fiscal stimulus, combined with “interest rates near zero” (attention Bank of Canada Governor Mark Carney, as you contemplate another rate cut this week). But Harper closed by declaring that Canada has neither the fundamental banking issues nor the housing crisis of the U.S.  “We have a cyclical downturn,” he summed up, “but nothing that requires major government intervention.”

That left me blinking at my screen. A “cyclical downturn”? Today’s release of GDP numbers is expected to contain about the worst economic news in a generation in Canada. And “nothing that requires major government intervention”? In that case, I’d have to wonder why the January federal budget served up a $34 billion deficit, and why Ontario is expected to post a deficit of nearly half that, all on its own, later this month. I’d call that major intervention, and if the Prime Minister doesn’t, I’d be curious to know what he thinks is going on.

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