The Conservative government has been "too American" in its attempts to justify the Afghan war to a skeptical Canadian public, according to an internal report commissioned by the Department of Foreign Affairs.
The extensive critique of the Tory communications strategy on the war comes from a series of cross-country focus groups conducted in November 2006 at a cost of almost $76,000.
The study, obtained by the Toronto Star, found that Prime Minister Stephen Harper was "echoing" U.S. President George W. Bush in his attempt to explain why Canadian soldiers are fighting and dying in the country's southern province.
Harper has drawn a link between the NATO-led mission and the 24 Canadians who were killed in the collapse of New York's World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001. Defence Minister Gordon O'Connor recently described the fight as "retribution" for the terrorist attacks.
"Participants associated this message with public relations positioning – it was seen as echoing the kind of messaging American officials have made regarding Iraq," wrote the report's authors, the Strategic Counsel public opinion firm.
The report lists "vocabulary/terms/phrases/concepts to reinforce" the message that the government is right about its commitment to the war in Afghanistan. They include "rebuilding," "restoring," "reconstruction," "hope," "opportunity" and "enhancing the lives of women and children."
Words and phrases to avoid include: "freedom, democracy, liberty – in combination this phrase comes across as sounding too American."
Strategic Counsel also advised that the government "avoid developing a line of argumentation too strongly based on values. While the value of human rights is strongly supported, there is a risk of appearing to be imposing Canadian values. Again, this is not seen to be the 'Canadian way.'"
. . .
The Tory communications problems are compounded by "a general perception that this government is already closely aligned with the U.S. on other fronts," the report states.
To counter this, the Tories should seek opportunities to "underscore Canadian sovereignty" and quash the view there is an "overly-close, dominant-subservient" relationship between the two countries.
. . .
It seems the government has heeded some of the tough-talking advice.
A section of the focus group examined words and pictures that were to be placed on the federal government's main website explaining Canada's involvement in Afghanistan.
Instead of references to threats or terrorism, which the study found only underscored the Harper-Bush link, there are pictures of children in schools, references to progress and development, and the explanation that Canada is in Afghanistan at the request of the democratically elected government.
So we don't have to worry about redefining - or even defining - the "mission," as this war is always called. All we have to do is repackage it. And they're worried about sounding too American?
The title of this post, in case you don't remember, comes straight from the figurehead himself.