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Why Stephen Harper Prefers Us News

Questions over Canada's role in the Afghanistan war and unflattering polls have the prime minister eyeing the exits


TORONTO, Canada — Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper doesn't hide his preference for American media. His performance in the past several months made that clear enough — giving interviews to as many U.S. television networks that would have him while practically starving the ones back home.

Last week, while speaking to a business audience in Toronto, Harper stated the obvious for the first time publicly.

"I tend to watch mainly American news because I don't like to watch Canadian news and hear what Allan [Gregg] and everybody else is saying about me," he said, referring to a pollster and political pundit who was in the audience. "So my hobby is to watch politics elsewhere."

Other prime ministers have made similar claims, and it stretches belief every time. If true, however, it means Harper spared himself some uncomfortable media coverage in the past few days (although he was obviously given the gist of it in daily press briefings by his staff).

First came confirmation that pork barrel politics remains the Canadian way. Several newspaper and TV networks calculated that a disproportionate amount of the $12 billion spent so far to stimulate the economy through infrastructure projects has gone to ridings held by Harper's Conservative party.

The CBC network found that 60 percent of the stimulus funding — to build everything from roads to hockey rinks — went to ridings with Conservative members of parliament. (Harper's minority government holds 46.4 percent of Canada's 308 ridings.)

Making matters worse were pictures of more than 50 Conservative lawmakers handing out infrastructure funds while holding those huge prop checks politicians like to pose with. The checks sported the Conservative party logo, or were signed by either the local politician or the prime minister. That suggests the funds came from Conservative party coffers or, more ridiculously, the politician's own pocket. The money comes from Canadian taxpayers, of course, and the only emblem those checks could legitimately have been sporting is the government of Canada's.

Harper first came to power in 2006 partly by denouncing previous Liberal governments, whose eagerness to give tax money to cronies resulted in criminal charges several years ago. He quickly described prop checks with the party logo as a "mistake," but some voters might instead see them as a variation of a Canadian political theme.

More problematic for Harper — and more pertinent for the Obama administration — is news during the past week that leaves little chance of Canada extending its combat mission in Afghanistan beyond 2011.

One event was the release of a hard-hitting autobiography by Gen. Rick Hillier, Canada's Chief of the Defense Staff from 2005 to 2008.

Widely seen as the architect of Canada's role in the Afghanistan war, the popular former general comes out with guns blazing: He lambastes Harper's entourage for being more interested in political optics than in honoring Canada's war dead, noting they initially tried to pull a George W. Bush and hide the coffins of Canadian soldiers from the public; he accuses meddling Ottawa bureaucrats of undermining the mission; and he dismisses NATO, which heads the Afghan mission, as a rotting corpse with no strategy for fighting the Taliban when Canada took command of the war effort in 2004.

As for recent political musings about continuing a non-combat mission after 2011 — the date the government has set as the end of Canada's combat role — Hillier dismissed that as the pipe dream of office flunkies.

"If you stay in the south and try to do something like training [Afghan soldiers], you will still be in combat. I don't care what [political] staffers say in the media about how they can find a way to do it. You simply will not. You will be in combat," Hillier said during an interview with the Toronto Star newspaper.

The criticism comes on the heels of Colin Kenny, chair of the Senate Committee on National Security and Defense, proclaiming Canada's mission in Afghanistan a failure and calling for outright "retreat." His sentiments echo those of many European countries also contributing troops to the war.

The Harper government is also being portrayed as doing what it can to stall a public inquiry into the transfer of prisoners by Canadian soldiers to Afghan jails, where they were allegedly tortured. International law prohibits transferring prisoners to places where they are tortured. The transfers began at least in 2006 and were stopped in early 2008.

The torture allegations were first reported in the spring of 2007 by the Globe and Mail newspaper. Government ministers claimed at the time they had no idea it was going on. But a sworn affidavit came to light last week from a Canadian diplomat in Afghanistan, stating he sent reports to Ottawa as early as May 2006, alerting them to "serious, imminent and alarming" abuse of prisoners.

Peter MacKay, then the foreign minister and now the defense minister, says those reports never reached his desk. Some observers have a hard time believing that risk-averse bureaucrats would not have pushed such troubling allegations up the political chain of command, including to the prime minister's office.

But the inquiry to get to the bottom of it all has been suspended by legal wrangling over the Harper government's bid to limit its scope.

It is widely expected that Obama — soon to decide on whether to send up to 80,000 more U.S. troops to Afghanistan — will ask Harper to keep Canada's 2,800 soldiers in the southern province of Kandahar beyond 2011. The revelations of the past week — from prisoner abuses to Hillier's criticisms — won't increase confidence among Canadians about extending a mission a majority of them already oppose.

But with his eyes focused on American newscasts, who knows what Harper will do?