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The Perils, Principles, and Polls of War

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau holds a press conference on the sidelines of the UNGA in New York, U.S., September 21, 2023.

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau holds a press conference on the sidelines of the UNGA in New York, U.S., September 21, 2023.

REUTERS/Mike Segar/File Photo

It was not their finest hour. But it was one of their latest.

After first insinuating that the tragic Oct. 17 bombing of the hospital parking lot in Gaza was an attack by Israel – a view promoted by Hamas – the Canadian government quickly backtracked. US intelligence had concluded that the rockets actually came from Gaza, so Canada announced it was conducting its own investigation.

Finally, on Oct. 21, four days after misinformation about the event had sparked global riots, Canada announced a new conclusion. “Analysis conducted independently by the Canadian Forces Intelligence Command indicates with a high degree of confidence that Israel did not strike the hospital ... the strike was caused by an errant rocket fired from Gaza.”

But timing, as they say, is everything. The announcement came from the defense minister at 9:51 p.m. On a Saturday night.

In politics, that’s called a late-night dump, or burying a story. Why the whimper on such a key moment? It is a story of polls, principles, and the perils of war. And it’s playing out everywhere.

The principle should be clear: Stick to facts. In a situation as polarizing and as divisive as the Israel-Hamas war, facts are the basic currency of trust, so this principle is more important than ever. Even today, with news hitting about Israel’s attack on the Jabalia refugee camp to target Hamas leaders, the facts matter. Were there Hamas commanders hiding there? How many civilians were killed? Is the camp a legal target? What is next in the ground war in Gaza? Israel has to be accountable to international law in their war against Hamas no matter how just it is, and those facts also must be called out fairly.

Now, facts without context lead to the perils of both-sidesism and the loss of a moral compass. Why attacks happen and what is justified are crucial questions – and therein lie the thorny politics. Choosing how to contextualize facts is subject to profound debate. For example, what is the baseline of any side to justify the level of action? Is it the Hamas terror attacks on Oct. 7? Netanyahu’s controversial settlement policy? The 1948 establishment of Israel, which Hamas does not recognize? There are dozens of starting points that one side may choose to rationalize an action and support any long-term strategy. But at the very least, let’s unapologetically debate with the actual facts, not with disinformation and whispered corrections.

In this case, the issue was not the principle of facts, but the reality of polls. A recent Pallas Data poll revealed that 41% of Canadians disagreed with the statement “Canada should support Israel in its armed conflict against Hamas.” Only 38% agreed.

For Liberals, it is even more complicated. They are lagging behind the Conservatives, and in order to win the next election they need to steal votes from their left-wing political ally, the NDP. But only 22% of NDP voters say support for Israel’s fight is warranted. Liberals also need to hold on to French-speaking Quebec, where only 27% want Canada to support Israel’s fight. So, while Trudeau has been unequivocal in his views that Israel has every right to defend itself against Hamas — the Saturday night dump was a sign of the complexities at work.

As we covered in the GZERO Daily yesterday, US President Joe Biden has a similar issue. His support for Israel is significantly more robust, but that comes at a political cost, not only among Arab American voters in key swing states like Michiganbut internationally. As Israel’s strategy and long-term strategy in Gaza remains unclear and its war gets more deadly, Biden’s principles will be tested.

Let’s not be too naïve. Polls always drive politics, even in war – maybe especially so – but a leader’s job is to convince people that the principles driving their policies are right. A key component of leadership is to make polls follow principles, not the other way around. You gotta sell your ideas or you end up chasing polls, which is the political equivalent of chasing after the wind. That turns politics into the vanity of clinging to power for its own sake.

Trudeau came to power as a centrist with principles, one of which was combating climate change. What made him successful was that he had a clear way of addressing that issue: the controversial carbon tax. Having a defining issue has always been the challenge for the mushy middle – who, at their worst, try to be everything to everyone and end up being nothing to no one. Trudeau’s carbon tax helped to solve that, and whatever you think of it, he won three elections by defending the principle behind it. It kept his base together. Now that too is up for grabs.

Facing brutal polling numbers and heavy pressure from the Eastern provinces – a Liberal stronghold — Trudeau buckled. His government announced a carve-out in the carbon tax for anyone using heating oil. Guess what? The highest percentage of folks who use it are in Atlantic Canada.

Suddenly, Trudeau’s defining policy has been undermined. Every province now wants its own carve-out – those run by Conservatives, of course, because they always opposed the carbon tax, but now, even those run by the NDP, like Manitoba. It is quite a political feat to make the new NDP Premier of one province agree with the Conservative premiers of the others. As they have ALL pointed out, now people who use more efficient natural gas pay more tax than folks who use less efficient fuel to heat their homes. The core principle of polluter pays is upside down.

“It’s double political jeopardy,” pollster Nik Nanos told me. “He’s disappointing those that are focused on the economy and believe in the carbon tax and annoyed those who are against the tax – even with the climb down.”

“How can they not make more exceptions? Before there were many Canadians who didn’t like the government, but at least thought they were generally consistent. This undermines consistency and shows that slamming up against politics they will start to put water in their wine.”

When principles give way to the polls, there is nothing left but politics. That’s quicksand.

In the US, polls over principles are increasing the perils of war. The dysfunctional Republican Party has been incapable of coherent governance – just electing a speaker has been shambolic – because their principles are negotiable as long as Donald Trump remains high in the polls. If there is no agreement on basic facts, like the legitimacy of the last election, what are their core principles? How do they come together and support, say, funding for Ukraine or now, as we speak, for Israel? Everything is a political negotiation based on staying in power.

Right now, just getting the facts right makes holding principles more difficult. One of the strategic goals of Hamas’ terror is to normalize its annihilationist rhetoric around Israel and destroy any possibility of a two-state solution. It is also something that Israeli PM Netanyahu has spent years trying to undermine, which is why over 80% of Israelis blame him for the security failure and his party is polling at 20-year lows. In the long term, destroying the possibility of a two-state solution – the core principle for peace – is the ultimate casualty of war. It means there is no way out.

In any complicated, divisive issue — the war, climate change, etc. – leaders must listen to people, of course, but once they let polls obscure facts, they lose sight of principles. That is the test of leadership, and where their finest hours will be decided.


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