Conservatives are road testing their election strategy: while Stephen Harper is a real leader, Stéphane Dion is not. Whether it is carrying out a combat role in Afghanistan, or getting tough on crime, Harper will lead, Dion will not, that is the Tory story.

The results of current Conservative polls and focus groups will decide if the Conservatives provoke their own defeat in the House of Commons shortly, or wait for a better opportunity for consolidating their hold on power.

When will we know the election campaign is on?

The give away sign will be heavy attack ads launched against Dion by the Conservatives. Negative works. Say Dion is weak, say Dion cannot do it, and some people will be persuaded easily.Doing positive messages is harder. Try to explain the attributes Stephen Harper (or Stéphane Dion) brings to the leadership of Canada, and the text suddenly gets fuzzy. People are not so easily moved to assent as they are to reject.

The Tory strategists are testing a war-making strategy. How many Canadians say Yes to a combat role in Kandahar? How many say No? How many say Yes/No?

The Yes group constitutes potential Conservative voters; the No group lines up with the NDP or Bloc; and the Yes/No (now Yes, past 2009 No) are likely Liberals.

Suppose the Yes group outnumbers the Conservative voters in Quebec, and the West, then war is winner. Conservative voters plus the pro-war vote could strengthen party support. If Yes scores well enough against No, and Yes/No in Ontario, the Conservatives could hope to split the Liberal and NDP vote, and win some seats.

The laughable part of the strategy is the idea that splitting the country over the war constitutes leadership. In Canada, leaders unite a large number of Canadians, bringing citizens from far flung regions together around a vision, a project, a story, a common purpose, something with meaning that resonates with citizens.The tragic part of the strategy is playing politics with the war, using a failing military mission to win an election.

In 1965, Georges Kennan, the controversial architect of the postwar American policy of containment of the Soviet Union, a diplomat, and theorist of power politics, testified before the American Senate hearings on Vietnam. “Never put your troops into combat without knowing how you can get them out again,” said Kennan, a true conservative.

In an act of gross imprudence the Liberals put Canadian troops in Afghanistan under the American flag. The public was told it was a peacekeeping mission. While former prime minister Chrétien blames his successor Paul Martin for Canada taking on a front line combat role. In fact the Canadian military took on the role itself, with Chief of Staff Rick Hillier playing the starring role as the mission was brought under NATO, while the political so-called leadership, Liberal, and then Conservative, let him do it.

By naming a former Liberal, and deputy prime minister, John Manley, to head up a task force on whether to continue the Canadian front line combat role in Afghanistan, Stephen Harper hoped to divide the Liberal opposition, and further weaken its embattled leader, Stéphane Dion.

Manley, helped along by his continentalist colleagues Derek Burney, and Paul Tellier, played the fool perfectly. Instead of asking the obvious question: what Canadian interests are at stake in Afghanistan? And giving the obvious answer: none; Manley bravely called for the prime minister to step up, take control of the “file,” and convince some NATO allies to commit 1,000 combat troops in support of the Canadian forces.

Nobody can be expected to believe that another 1,000 troops are going to make a difference. After all, the Soviet Union had six times the troops in Afghanistan that NATO does today, and it still lost.

Harper must now deliver. If he wants a never-ending war role for Canada in Aghanistan, he can consult with his pollsters and party advisors as long as he wants. He still must convince Canadians to vote for him, if he wants to continue to send our soldiers into battle.

While Harper can force an election if he wants, the public, not the prime minister will decide who passes the leadership test, and on what grounds. If the Conservative leader thinks he is smart enough to win an election on the war, he may find out a great many Canadians have decided he is not smart enough to deserve their vote.

Duncan Cameron

Duncan Cameron

Born in Victoria B.C. in 1944, Duncan now lives in Vancouver. Following graduation from the University of Alberta he joined the Department of Finance (Ottawa) in 1966 and was financial advisor to the...