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A White House visit by way of Kandahar by Antonia Zerbisias

Mar 14, 2006

Source : Toronto Star

Yesterday on CBC Newsworld, it seemed that there was only one story in the whole wide world: Prime Minister Stephen Harper's top-secret surprise visit to the troops in Afghanistan.

The news made the front pages of every paper, led the national newscasts and was the talk of the nation.

Talk about a camera opp.

The Globe and Mail had Harper in the cockpit of a Hercules, as if he could fly the craft. The Star showed Harper striding manfully with the generals, looking most commander-in-chiefness. The Sun's front practically exploded the best headline, "KandaHarper!" while the National Post actually ran a military PR photo.

You don't get better image-making than that.

Gone was the policy wonk who once ill-advisedly donned cowboy leathers and a too-clingy polo shirt. Here was a leader appearing as macho as any smooth-fingered, pale-faced sedentary former lobbyist geek could look in a pair of khaki civvies with one-too-many-campaign-stop meals and Timbits under his belt.

Thank goodness he didn't do the flight suit thing.

The whole event was so brilliantly stage-managed I kept expecting him to trot out the turkey, plastic trimmings and all, the way U.S. President George W. Bush did in Iraq at Thanksgiving 2003.

But Harper didn't need to do that.

The only turkeys were the ones in the media that Harper's communications gang plucked with this brilliant tactic. Like birds to a slaughter, rounded up and sent winging to the other side of the world on a few hours' notice.

And so, over the past couple of days, news viewers have seen Harper giving that rousing we don't "cut and run" and "God bless Canada" speech uninterrupted for four minutes or so, over and over again.

By the time the pundits weigh in later this week, clucking over it all and pecking at the media strategy, Canadians will be as interested in it all as they are in turkey leftovers on Jan. 3.

And so, it was a move straight out of the messaging playbook by Karl Rove, a.k.a. Bush's brain, the guy who gives us all those shiny happy images of the preznit delivering his lines in front of fresh-scrubbed, at-the-ready troops before they get dropped back behind the lines.

Harper's trip worked like a charm. At deadline last night, an unscientific online poll by CTV had respondents approving of the visit, 14,387 votes to 3,070 votes. That's 82 per cent to 18 per cent.

Mission accomplished. (And where was the banner anyway?)

What a way to control the message, stop the nay-saying about the mission in Afghanistan (which was undertaken with virtually no say from the people of Canada) and to boost the image of a prime minister who squeaked into office with nearly two-thirds of the electorate against him.

Now don't get me wrong: I think it's fantastic that Harper went. Although I doubt that the troops are very impressed with politicians showing up for photo opps, I am sure the visit reassured them that, unlike their American brothers and sisters in Iraq, they have not been forgotten by the folks back home, or in government.

But here's the thing: as important as it is to support the troops — and to be seen to be supporting the troops — it would be all wrong for the media to fall into line U.S.-style and not cast a critical eye on the visit and the mission.

Just because the U.S. media had been cowed doesn't mean that Canadian journalists should succumb to the same bull. I think our reporters are made of sterner stuff.

But what could be happening is that, after some six weeks of information starvation by the Harper government, the media are giddy with excitement over having some access to the government. Recall that the Prime Minister's Office has put its foot down on ministers talking — for fear they may put their foot in it.

Still, too much has been made of how Harper opted to go to Afghanistan rather than take the more traditional trip a newly elected PM would take, i.e., pay a visit to the White House. Make no mistake: by going to Afghanistan first he all but did check into the Oval Office. But, if any critic pointed that out on TV yesterday, I missed it.

Furthermore, I could not find any parsing of Harper's much-replayed speech in which he came off as all-too-Bushian.

"Cutting and running?"

"God bless Canada?"

Consider: "Before its liberation, under the Taliban regime, Afghanistan often served as an incubator for Al Qaeda and other terror organizations. This reality hit home with brutal force on 9/11, when two dozen Canadians lost their lives suddenly and senselessly in the destruction of the World Trade Center."

While the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11 were a terrible tragedy, this mission is not about payback. Or is it? And for what exactly?

Consider: "Since that time, Al Qaeda has singled out Canada as one of the countries targeted for terror."

But are the troops in Kandahar to hunt down Al Qaeda or to rebuild the country, as we have been told so often?

Consider: "And beyond the threat of terror there's the threat of drugs."

Our men and women are losing their lives and limbs because they're narcs?

Minor missteps to be sure — and both certain to be overlooked by Canadians connecting with our men and women in Afghanistan.

But they should not be overlooked by our men and women in the media.

© Toronto Star