In politics as in war, advantage is not enough
(April 28, 2015)

Near the outset of the U.S. Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln made Maj.–Gen. George McClellan General-in-Chief of the Union Amy. McClellan was highly popular among his men and a great organizer who built the Army of the Potomac into a formidable force. Unfortunately for Lincoln, McClellan the meticulous organizer lacked the courage and judgment to be a field commander.

On April 5, 1862, Lincoln ordered McClellan to attack a Confederate force in Yorktown, Va. He had at his disposal 121,500 troops, 44 batteries of artillery and prodigious logistical support. The Confederate contingent in Yorktown, meanwhile, comprised something on the order of 10,000 men. The battle was a rout waiting to happen. It never did. McClellan told Lincoln the enemy was 100,000 strong and refused to attack. The delusion was partly due to Gen. John B. Magruder’s crafty parading of his Confederate soldiers in a circuit to give the illusion of greater numbers and his ordering of logs to be painted black to resemble cannons.

McClellan knew that intelligence estimates of Confederate strength were laughable exaggerations yet he acted as if they were true. Instead of attacking, he chose the do-nothing option of laying siege to Yorktown. In early May, Magruder and the Confederates slipped out to fight another day, leaving McClellan to enter an empty town. He declared victory. The last straw for Lincoln was McClellan’s repeated refusal to hasten after Gen. Robert E. Lee’s retreating army after the Battle of Antietam. On Nov. 5, 1862, Lincoln relieved him of command.

McClellan was an administrator who proved to be more of a coward than a commander, notwithstanding the Washington Post’s risible attempt to rehabilitate him. There may be a lesson here for a certain Canadian leader, one who finds himself at the head of a large force in the run up to a political war.

Two years ago this month, Justin Trudeau was anointed leader of the Liberal Party of Canada, a decision that gave hope to Canadians that somebody might finally put the brakes on Stephen Harper’s totalitarianism.

For one thing, Trudeau has a good pedigree. His father, Pierre Elliot Trudeau, was a respected if not wholly popular prime minister, though his reputation has much improved since his death. Trudeau’s Liberal predecessors, Stéphane Dion and Michael Ignatieff, were, respectively, too bland and too aloof to generate any deep support among the party faithful or offer a viable governing alternative. When you add good looks and youth (41), Justin Trudeau appears to be the ideal prime-minister-in-waiting, especially for young voters.

Opinion polls in the month following Trudeau’s election seemed to confirm that a reversion to Liberal rule was highly likely if not inevitable. In May 2013, voter support for the Liberals had more than doubled since the end of the 2011 election, whereas support for the Harperites had fallen by a third. Some of that Liberal growth even came at the expense of the centre-left New Democratic Party, which lost more than 20% support. Had an election been called at this time, the Liberals would have coasted to majority rule. What a difference two years makes.

By April this year, the Liberals had fallen from 38.6% to 27.6%, and Harper, of all people, was the major beneficiary! The NDP, contrary to expectation, not only did not benefit from Trudeau’s slip but lost ground, confirming that its leader, Thomas Mulcair, is not perceived as a serious rival to Trudeau.

Like McClellan, Trudeau is highly popular. His victory came on the first ballot with 80% of the vote, and Liberal membership grew rapidly almost immediately. Trudeau’s popular appeal really took off in January 2014 and ballooned over the spring and summer.

Then, in mid-October, it all went south. The seminal event was the Oct. 22 shooting of Cpl. Nathan Cirillo, a ceremonial guard on duty on Parliament Hill. It was a bizarre incident, not only because it came out of nowhere, but it received conspicuously comprehensive video coverage. Some of this coverage even managed to catch no fewer than four police cars parked near the site on Parliament Hill with officers standing around as if…waiting for something to happen.

As readers already know, the shooting of Cpl. Cirillo gave Harper the excuse he needed to legislate police-state repression and a host of other unconstitutional measures in the name of “public safety.”

This police-state repression is manifested in Harper’s Protection of Canada from Terrorists Act (Bill C-44) and Security of Canada Information Sharing Act (“Secret Police Act,” Bill C-51) which authorize the state to conduct spying, harassment, arbitrary detention and intimidation and other unconstitutional measures. The main targets are not so much "terrorists" as anyone who criticizes the government, people like environmentalists and Muslim charities. These groups are already subject to malicious audits and have been intimidated into repressing their political activism.

Canada’s McClellan fails test of character

The shooting of Cpl. Cirillo gave Trudeau the perfect opportunity to seize the initiative from Mulcair and the NDP, who represent the Confederacy for analytical purposes: He could condemn the shooting and condemn the Harperites for their conspicuously contrived campaign to demonize the shooter, Michael Zehaf Bibeau, as a terrorist. Moreover, he could call attention to the totalitarian overtones of the shooting and its aftermath.

On the day of the shooting, Trudeau did deliver a speech, but it was stiff and peppered with “values” blathering reminiscent of George W. Bush’s post-Sept. 11 screed. Nevertheless, it had one redeeming virtue—he did not demonize Zehaf Bibeau: “Criminals cannot and will not dictate to us how we act as a nation, how we govern ourselves or how we treat each other. They cannot and will not dictate our values. And they do not get to decide how we use our shared public spaces.”

For his part, Mulcair also steered clear of the terrorism tar pit On Oct. 29, he also used “criminal” to describe Zehaf Bibeau: “When you look at the history of the individual involved, you see a criminal act, of course. But… I think that we’re not in the presence of a terrorist act in the sense that we would understand it.”

At this point, Mulcair and Trudeau were on the same page regarding the shooting, but Trudeau had a big advantage. His Liberals are far and away richer and more populous than Mulcair’s NDP, and he can tap into overwhelming national hatred for Harper and his anti-terrorism totalitarianism to outmanoeuver Mulcair. Since the Bill was announced, Harper’s terrorism smokescreen has lifted and opposition to state totalitarianism tripled in six weeks. Even key business leaders oppose it. All Trudeau had to do was channel this sentiment to become the people’s choice to restore Canada to parliamentary rule.

As expected, Harper and his minions jumped all over Mulcair for daring to be rational, but so did Trudeau! “The RCMP was clear, these were acts of terrorism, [so] these were acts of terrorism,” he said. Instead of lambasting Bill C-51 as unconstitutional and fascist, he tapped into his inner McClellan to adopt the do-nothing approach of proposing amendments that he knew full well would never pass. From a position of strength, Trudeau allowed himself to be outmanoeuvred by both Harper and Mulcair thereby placing himself at odds with the electorate and his own party.

Trudeau’s abrupt about-face, and his attack on Mulcair for agreeing with him, makes no sense politically or morally. He does not allow for the possibility that the RCMP might lie, or that it might have abetted the shooting in some way. Currently, Parliament Hill has its own police force, which is loyal to Parliament; Harper wants it replaced by the RCMP, which is loyal to him. The RCMP has even admitted to being party to a smear campaign against former Liberal finance minister Ralph Goodale that helped Harper win his first election. Is it too much of a stretch to suggest that the RCMP came to Harper’s aid again? At any rate, Trudeau had no business taking the RCMP’s judgment on what is or is not “terrorism” at face value.

His uncritical acceptance of the RCMP’s version of events is also disturbing because it raises the possibility that he might have succumbed to political coercion. If so, one of the likely suspects is the Israel Lobby, which has the most to gain from the destruction of Canada’s civil liberties. This view gains credence from Trudeau’s knee-jerk condemnation of the Boycott Divestment and Sanctions campaign, which seeks to isolate Israel politically and economically because of the atrocities it commits in the Middle East. Trudeau claims (wrongly) that the BDS movement, like Israeli Apartheid Week, has no place on Canadian campuses, but this is just standard Lobby propaganda.

Since Trudeau wants to return the Liberals to power, he might have thought it less risky to acquiesce in attacks on Canadians’ constitutional rights than risk offending those who control vast amounts of campaign money and influence. After all, since Harper’s primary loyalty is to Israel, an attack on Harper’s secret-police bill might be construed as an attack on the Lobby. The problem with this scenario, though, is that it is utterly self-defeating—at least half the country and two thirds of Trudeau’s own MPs oppose Bill C-51. Why would Trudeau pick an unnecessary fight with his own party and the voting public unless he lacked the character and confidence to do the right thing?

In the end, Trudeau, like McClellan, succumbed to cowardice. Despite having a decisive advantage over his opponent and Harper set up like a clay pigeon, the expected rout never happened. Instead, Trudeau resorted to timid half-measures and abdicated the role of national saviour-in-waiting to Mulcair. Today, Mulcair and Green Party leader Elizabeth May are the only two national leaders willing to stand up to Harper to defend the Constitution and rule of law. In fact, Green Party support rose by more than 150% over this same period.

Short of a shock caucus revolt, which is distinctly unlikely in an election year, the Liberals are stuck with a McClellan at a time when they need a Ulysses S. Grant.