Harjit Sajjan makes no excuses – there aren’t any
Politicians, it’s no secret, sometimes self-aggrandize. And nearly everyone would give a veteran a little leeway in recounting what he or she did in a war. But the two things mix about as well as a plugged-in toaster and a bathtub full of water. Politicians who exaggerate their role in combat risk a career-killing reaction.
So Harjit Sajjan, the defence minister who falsely claimed to be the architect of the largest Canadian battle in Afghanistan, was forced to acknowledge his “mistake,” apologize, and express contrition, repeatedly – first on Facebook on Saturday, then in person before reporters outside the House of Commons on Monday, and then in the chamber itself, 12 times.
The opposition called for his resignation, but they were not going to get it. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau took the first volley in Question Period and answered that Mr. Sajjan had made a mistake, but apologized, and he had full confidence in his minister.
But already, Mr. Sajjan is not what he used to be. He was a valuable asset for the Liberals, a respected veteran in a party that is short on cred with the military, a former lieutenant-colonel who served as an intelligence officer in Afghanistan, with acknowledged success. When he was appointed to cabinet, he was the subject of glowing profiles around the world, which almost invariably described him as a “badass.”
Now, although his military record has plenty of legitimate distinction, his political value as a man of the Forces is radically diminished. In politics, he is a badass no more.
What he did particularly offends the culture of the Canadian military, the men and women in uniform. The Conservatives were eager to make that point, calling it “stolen valour,” and arguing the troops will not trust him anymore.
Mr. Sajjan made the claim in a speech in India in April, calling himself the “architect” of Operation Medusa, a 2006 battle against the Taliban in the Panjwaii district of Kandahar province. It was a major, Canadian-led operation notable because it involved battles with massed Taliban fighters who later reverted to guerrilla-style insurgent tactics.
Soldiers who served there attacked the statement as a lie – Mr. Sajjan was then a reserve major, serving as an intelligence officer, but not a mastermind or top strategic planner. It was seen by some as taking credit for the joint work of superiors and thousands of soldiers.
It was a thoroughly self-inflicted and damaging mistake, denting the background that made him a compelling political figure. After all, Mr. Sajjan was considered a successful military officer. A former commander, then-brigadier-general David Fraser, wrote a laudatory commendation stating Mr. Sajjan revamped intelligence collection, put himself at personal risk almost daily, and that “his analysis was so compelling that it drove a number of large scale theatre-resourced efforts, including Operation Medusa.” Mr. Sajjan never needed to inflate his record. But he did.
The Conservatives tried to draw a pattern. In 2015, Mr. Sajjan said General Jonathan Vance, now the Chief of the Defence Staff, had called him the architect of Operation Medusa, but that was at least attributing the boast to someone else’s flattery. This time, it is damaging.
As a minister, he does not have many achievements to anchor his reputation, not yet. Most major defence files are on hold until he delivers a promised defence-policy review. Last year, the Liberals said they would announce a peacekeeping mission by the end of 2016, but, well, that’s off the radar.
On Monday, Mr. Sajjan seemed two sizes smaller. In Question Period, he leaned on his desk with one hand, like someone tenuously holding on. The Liberal MPs around him were joyless, not cheering, not smiling, while Mr. Sajjan took his lumps. Afterward, a half-dozen Liberals came by to buck him up, well-wishers at a wake.
His apology was of the peculiarly unsatisfying political variety. He made a mistake, he told reporters. He was asked, “Was it a lie?” His reply: “I’m not here to make excuses.” Another question: “What was in your head when you said it?” Again, he said, “I’m not here to make excuses.” It was a phrase he used nine times, avoiding frank answers. He just wanted to move on. And he will, but with his credibility as the soldier’s soldier in the Liberal government damaged.