Wars ignored by campaigning politicians

It’s amazing that we’re fighting two wars during an election campaign and nobody is talking about them as issues.

People might just be tired of Afghanistan. Our troops have been fighting for nine years. We’re stepping back, sort of, this year.

Still, it’s not clear how many Canadians will stay in the conflict, or whether anything lasting has been accomplished. Those should be campaign issues.

Libya is brand new. Canada signed on to a military mission there March 19, just before the election campaign started.

That should be a big decision. As citizens, we bear responsibility for government actions. And going to war should bring the greatest responsibility.

Not just for our troops. In fact, Libya has been pretty safe for them. Our role has involved bombing targets with no real resistance from Libyan forces.

But people get killed when you drop bombs. And once you jump into a fight in another country, you’re committed.

This week, people in Libya described a massacre in Misrata, as government troops closed in on rebel forces. Our intervention set the stage for that massacre.

The original reason for United Nations intervention was to prevent Moammar Gadhafi from killing rebels who had been empowered by the spirit of protest in North Africa. Gadhafi has oppressed his people for decades; his people were rising up; the West would make sure they weren’t slaughtered, but not actually help them fight.

It was all tidily limited. We’d bomb, but we wouldn’t invade.

But surely someone in Canada’s government, or Parliament, should have asked questions.

What if bombing wasn’t enough, for example? Would we send troops to protect the insurgents, or watch them be massacred?

Canadians needed those answers. The insurgents needed them a lot more.

Stephen Harper, unlike most western leaders, said Canada was engaging in “acts of war” against the Libyan government. That suggests pretty committed support for the anti-Gadhafi forces now facing disaster as they confront trained, well-equipped government troops.

Harper also seemed surprisingly uninformed as he predicted western support would lead to Gadhafi’s quick defeat.

“He simply will not last very long,” Harper said last month as Canada signed on to the effort. “I think that is the basis on which we’re moving forward. If I am being frank here, that is probably more understood than spoken aloud. But I just said it aloud.”

But Gadhafi is lasting. He’s killing the people who rose up, and who counted on us. It appears now that Libya could be carved up into two nations – never a recipe for long-term stability.

It’s also increasingly clear that little is known about the power groups within the rebel forces or their ability to co-operate if they do control all or part of the country.

After the world stood by as horrific massacres took place in Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia, Canada led in developing the concept or a “responsibility to protect.”

When innocents were being massacred, the global community should not defer to national sovereignty, the doctrine holds. The greater duty was to those in peril.

In the real world, it is a difficult construct. Why Libya, and not the Ivory Coast? If aerial bombings are ineffective, does the responsibility demand arms support for the insurgents, or Canadian troops on the ground? How many years will Canadian jets patrol Libyan skies?

I have no idea. But surely our elected representatives should be discussing these questions seriously.

That has not happened. All four parties with representatives in Parliament supported the Libyan intervention. No MPs asked hard questions about what would happen if the plan didn’t work. (The Green oppose the military intervention, favouring diplomatic efforts.)

It looks like a political issue for them. And life or death for Libyans.The responsibility to protect people at imminent risk of violence is a fine principle.

But putting it into action requires careful thought and planning and a full public discussion of the goals, methods and what could go wrong.

All were missing in the Libyan intervention.

Footnote: Harper has used the mission to justify buying new jet fighters. The argument could equally be made that Canada could have fulfilled its role with other contributions and the Libyan interventions shows just how rarely the costly jets would be needed.