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Can the New Administration Keep Canada as an Ally in Afghanistan?

As Barack Obama looks abroad for allies in the war in Afghanistan, he should move fast to put Canada at the top of his list. Thus far, however, the incoming administration's message to Canadians has been disappointing.

The principal problem is Obama's use of Defense Secretary Robert Gates as his primary recruiter of Canadian support. Gates's voice threatens Obama with losing his key northern ally completely.

Unbeknown to many in the United States, the Canadian forces have been critical contributors in Afghanistan. They have suffered a disproportionate number of fatalities doing the work that some of America's European NATO allies have stubbornly avoided.

As a result, after seven years, Canada's military is tired and damaged, and the Canadian public is divided over whether the Afghanistan experience has been worthwhile. In the 2008 Canadian election, the governing Conservatives, who support the military's efforts in Kandahar, nevertheless promised to end Canada's Afghanistan mission in 2011.

Changing Ottawa's mind will be difficult. Canadians have a history of reacting unpredictably when placed under pressure by great-power allies, and their support must be sought with more caution than the United States has shown thus far.

Sixty-five years ago, in the midst of another epic conflict, the British ambassador to the United States, Edward Halifax, called on Canada to embrace greater Commonwealth cooperation in foreign and defense policy.

Working with the governments in Great Britain, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa, he claimed, Ottawa could maximize its international influence. Together, he argued, the Commonwealth states had the resources necessary to compete with the superpowers.

Halifax's ideas were neither new nor particularly provocative. Indeed, his message was hardly different from the recent comments of Defense Secretary Gates, who has praised Canadian participation in Afghanistan and subtly encouraged Ottawa to extend its commitment.

Nonetheless, Halifax's public comments ignited a national political crisis. Left-leaning Canadian nationalists, most of whom lived in French-speaking Quebec and had no familial ties to Britain, were furious that a foreign representative dared to tell them how to pursue their interests abroad. For the nationalists, closer cooperation with London would automatically have led to a loss of Canadian independence.

More conservative Canadians of British origin, on the other hand, agreed with Halifax completely. They believed that a Commonwealth approach to world affairs could provide Ottawa the leverage it needed to become a major global player.

With his voting public dangerously split, Canada's centrist Liberal prime minister, William Lyon Mackenzie King, denounced the ambassador's ideas. Ottawa made its own decisions in world affairs, he said. His government worked with all countries, not just with members of the British Commonwealth.

King, the most successful Canadian prime minister in history, recalled how a similar ethnic divide during the World War I had cost the governing Conservatives support in Quebec for a generation. Moreover, as Canadians began to think seriously about reconstruction at home, he needed to consolidate the left side of his political base.

King's public denunciation of Halifax's ideas effectively ended any chance of closer Commonwealth coordination. For Canadian governments who hoped to survive in power, threats to national unity trumped even a discussion of foreign policy options.

The rules of foreign policy in Canada haven't changed. Although a number of Canadians worry that leaving Afghanistan will reduce Canada's global influence and prestige, others, particularly left-leaning French Canadians, think that their country has already done enough in Kandahar and are suspicious of U.S. foreign policy initiatives. They'd prefer to act as part of a broader UN coalition, perhaps in Darfur or Haiti.

Using Defense Secretary Gates to deliver a Halifax-like message through the Canadian media 65 years later is therefore a serious mistake. Canada's Conservative government cannot hope to achieve majority status if it appears too supportive of anyone linked to what Canadians perceive as right-wing American interests. Just like Mackenzie King, it must tilt to the political center and maintain domestic harmony at virtually any cost.

If the Obama administration has any chance of changing Prime Minister Stephen Harper's mind about withdrawing from Afghanistan, it must learn to appreciate the politics of Canadian foreign policy. Using an outsider to tell Canadians how to manage their approach to world affairs in today's political climate is a recipe for failure.

Canadians must see Afghanistan as a global mission, not an American one, and certainly not one supported by George W. Bush. President Obama must demonstrate a genuine understanding of the political as well as the practical needs of his allies if he hopes to sustain their loyalty.

Whether it's already too late to change Canada's mind is unclear, but the incoming administration can certainly do better than it did in transition.

This piece was distributed for non-exclusive use by the History News Service, an informal syndicate of professional historians who seek to improve the public's understanding of current events by setting these events in their historical contexts. The article may be republished as long as both the author and the History News Service are clearly credited.