The most curious of all the Harper positions, was his unilateral embrace of the Afghanistan mission as the Conservatives own. Initiated by the Liberals, Harper could be a proponent of the mission, while still enjoying political cover, through lack of direct responsibility. Instead, Harper immediately seized on Afghanistan, wrapped himself in a militaristic nationalism and seemed to determine to cast the Conservatives as the pro-war option. Politically, Harper's zeal has always been questionable at best, because he relinquished an escape route without prompting, for no payoff.
Yesterday's press conference represents the Harper wakeup call. For the first time, Harper has suggested that the opposition will determine the direction of the mission. A far cry from the rhetoric heard just last month during the visit to Afghanistan, Harper essentially attempts to wash his hands and place the onus elsewhere. With support for an extension waning badly, this new posture is pure political calculation, which is noteworthy given the previous "we will not look at the polls" stance.
"Building consensus" means abdicating responsbility, neutralizing the issue as partisan consideration. Probably a wise move for Conservative fortunes, but one that deserves a cynical reading. I am willing to bet that internal polling shows a lack of appetite for open-ended combat even amongst soft-Conservative support. Make no mistake, despite the cries of principle, this seismic shift in tone is a finger in the wind scenario. Harper is trying to distance himself from the perception that this is his mission, which is where he was initially, prior to his self-annointed, misguided declaration as defender of Canada and the world.