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'This is Stephen Harper's war'


Globe and Mail Update

Michael Byers is becoming the angry academic voice of Canadian foreign policy.

He believes the United Nations was waiting a year ago for Canada to show interest in heading up a peacekeeping mission to Darfur. Had Canada shown that interest, he says, there would have been a strong peacekeeping force in the savaged Sudanese region long before now - perhaps with hundreds, if not thousands, of lives saved.

One of the country's leading scholars on international law, he argues that Canada's presence in Afghanistan has become the football of electoral politics, with less and less concern being paid to analyzing the military and political reasons why Canadian soldiers are there and being killed.

He has written what he calls his coming-home book, Intent for a Nation: What is Canada For? It is also, according to the subtitle, "A Relentlessly Optimistic Manifesto for Canada's Role in the World."

After 12 years at Oxford and Cambridge - where he was part of a group of scholars who worked on having former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet detained as a war criminal - and North Carolina's Duke University, where he was director of the Canadian studies program, he now is Canada research chair in global politics and international law at the University of British Columbia.

In the wake of this week's federal cabinet shuffle, he agreed to share his thinking with Globe and Mail readers.

MICHAEL VALPY: Let's start with your interpretation of Prime Minister Stephen Harper's cabinet moves.

MICHAEL BYERS: The minister of both foreign affairs and defence is Mr. Harper and I think that's widely recognized, and as a result I think one needs to look at this as a political move intended to do what any minority government seeks to do, which is to prepare for the next election. There's nothing cynical about that.

A couple of things have been accomplished here. We now have two of the better communicators in this government taking the two files that are most associated with this government's most prominent and problematic policy, which is the counter-insurgency mission in Kandahar.

It's noteworthy that they're both thoroughly capable in French, the Van Doos are in Kandahar right now, and certainly through the fall and into the new year the issue of how this war plays in Quebec will be central to determining Mr. Harper's future.

We're talking about domestic communication and not external communication?.

This comes back to my point that this is Stephen Harper's war. It's probably a result of his centralized approach to government, but it's also a reflection of trends that are common in other Western democracies. Tony Blair centralized foreign and defence policy in 10 Downing Street to an enormous degree, and one of the things about Gordon Brown is that he's given some of those powers back to Parliament. But the seating of the big foreign-policy and defence issues in a sort of West Wing- type leader's office is something that's been seen elsewhere and it's certainly been seen in Ottawa over the course of the last couple of decades.

In both cases, we're talking about domestic and not external communication?

They have a major problem on their hands in that somewhere around 50 per cent of Canadians are opposed to their central policy - and it's higher than that in Quebec. And they've made it very difficult for themselves to back down on that policy.

So, I do think that this is mostly domestic. I think it's mostly electoral politics, and that actually is a crying shame, for the simple reason that young Canadian men and women are dying, and it's less serious to play politics with money but it's unfortunate and irresponsible to play politics with lives.

You ask in your book, "Where would we gain the most: Continuing with a failing counter-insurgency mission in Afghanistan or leading a humanitarian intervention to stop the genocide in Darfur?" Is that the choice? Could we lead a Darfur mission? Does the United Nations or anyone else even want us there?

I put Darfur forward as an example. There are always going to be places like that. The UN is busier today than it has ever been in peacekeeping; it has more soldiers and more missions than ever before.

A couple of years ago, a very large UN peacekeeping force brought relative peace to the Congo, a country subject to intervention by seven different foreign armies over the last decade, with literally millions of people dying as a result. Peace was brought to that region not just because there was a large peacekeeping force but because there was a core, 2,000-soldier contribution from Germany.

And those 2,000 German soldiers act as a force-multiplier: They've got good equipment, good training; they're well disciplined, and they partner with the developing-country contributions who are there. They train them, they support them, they go out on patrols with them, and they make the developing-country soldiers many times more effective than they would otherwise be. That's why you need developed-country peacekeepers, not to replace the developing country soldiers but to make them much more effective. That is arguably the one reason the Congo mission worked - the Germans were there.

So the need for developed-country, force-multiplying peacekeepers is very real in Darfur and elsewhere. [Retired Lieut.-General Roméo] Dallaire reported that the UN was looking to Canada [for a Darfur peacekeeping contribution] because Canada was not a geopolitical player in northern Africa. It didn't have any stake in the oil fields in the Sudan. It wasn't involved in the power play between Bush and Putin or Beijing. Canada was seen by the UN as the optimal developed-country middle power to lead a UN mission to Darfur. Had Canada stepped forward and said, "Look, we're ready to lead a mission," we would have seen a serious UN peacekeeping force in Darfur long before now.

The one thing that [the UN Security Council] had been casting around for was that component of well-trained, well-equipped, well-disciplined soldiers who could pull these different African [Union] forces together as an effective peacekeeping force. The lack of developed-country willingness to step in has been covered up by smoke and mirrors about how Khartoum isn't consenting and how the African Union wants it to be an all-African force. But beneath all that smoke-and-mirrors is the sad reality that there are no Canadas any more.

What is the debate that we have to have on Afghanistan?

On whether the mission is succeeding. And realistically on what are the prospects for success and how do we measure success? And is it worth the cost inclusive of Canadian soldiers' lives?

I've been pushing this point for a year, that you don't need to have any particular ideological or moral perspective to realize that any kind of decision like this should be analyzed in cost-benefit terms, and we haven't done that, largely because it's become so mixed up with domestic politics.

What would a cost-benefit equation look like - achieving Y is worth X number of Canadian lives?

I don't want to put a price tag on Canadian soldiers' lives. But I do want to know if 22 soldiers who died in the past six months actually died in a mission that is accomplishing something. And if various indications are that the mission is failing rather than succeeding, then we do need to be questioning if we're being responsible to our soldiers and their families. I am proud of our soldiers because they're doing their damnedest, but the decision as to whether they should be there is not their decision, and it's not a decision that should be a political partisan electoral decision.

What should it be?

It should be based on a clear-eyed assessment by ministers who are exercising their responsibility as decision-makers acting for the national interest. And I know it's very difficult - in a minority-government situation where a war has taken on these political overtones - to step back and to try to be objective.

But it does happen and I would point to the various countries that have withdrawn forces from Iraq as examples of that. It's not easy, it sometimes doesn't happen until there's a change in government. Even Tony Blair was drawing down forces in Basra in Iraq and he was doing so partly because of the realization that the Iraq situation had become impossible to resolve through the presence of British soldiers.

The heaviest responsibility that any government carries is to place soldiers in harm's way and to keep them there.

What would you call success and what would you call failure in Afghanistan?

Different criteria have been implicitly and in some cases explicitly put forward. Dealing with the terrorists is what we were told was the initial reason for going. I'm not sure that has succeeded.

We certainly haven't managed to pacify the tribal areas up against the border with Pakistan, and as far as we know, Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda are still happily ensconced in northern Pakistan ...

The indications now, if you believe the Strategic Counsel memo leaked recently, is that the government rhetorically is moving away from that.

Now we're there to support the democratically elected government of Afghanistan.

And in its own way, that's problematic because there are certainly components of the government of Afghanistan associated with atrocities committed prior to the Taliban coming into power.

I'm speaking here of the so-called warlords. I think it's appropriate for us to be supporting the attempt to bring stable and effective government to Afghanistan, but I'm not actually sure how much pursuing insurgents into the mountain valleys of Kandahar province is central to that task. I think what we were doing in Kabul for a number of years was a quite appropriate mission, providing security and stability in the national capital in what was essentially a peacekeeping mission.

But now we've moved into this counter-insurgency, aggressive search-and-destroy mission in Kandahar, and what, effectively, we are trying to do is secure centralized control over the entire territory of a country that's never been subject to centralized control before, and I think that's a fool's errand. I'm not convinced that anyone can do it. The Soviet Union tried. The British Empire tried.

But the big point here is that we can support the government of Afghanistan and we can do a lot of good in large parts of the country, but I'm not convinced that this particular mission that we're involved in is directly contributing to that.

You write that our mission in Afghanistan could, over time, lead to the development of a Canadian Armed Forces that is focussed almost entirely - in its training, ethos and equipment - on aggressive missions conducted in concert with the U.S. What's the evidence of that happening, and why is that not a good idea?

The evidence is widely manifest. One saw it in [Chief of Staff Gen. Rick] Hillier's comments about fighting "scumbags and murderers." One saw it in terms of the reluctance to deal with international law on detainees comparable to our European allies. We essentially embraced the American approach starting with Day One, certainly in terms of our embracing the search-and-destroy component.

Part of the reason the Dutch have not lost nearly as many soldiers is that they rejected that particular approach even though they're in the south. They're working on stabilizing and winning hearts and minds closer to their bases.

But the Canadian military has embraced the tough-guy approach. You ramp up the aggressive nature of your equipment, your rules of engage- ment, your choice of mission, your rhetoric - and then, of course, it becomes more dangerous, and that in turn justifies ramping up some more, and the end result, I fear, is we wind up with a mini-version of the U.S. Marine Corps.

And quite frankly, the world does not need another U.S. Marine Corps. It needs soldiers who can do things the Americans can't or won't do. And that comes back to the remarkably successful specialization we had in military diplomacy - peacekeeping. And, as I say in my book, peacekeeping is not for wimps.

But purportedly our military never liked that role.

Certainly the current crop of generals didn't ... and I think partly their dislike of that role is that it made it more difficult to argue for budget increases and new and better equipment [because] for some governments, peacekeeping was a way of having a military on the cheap.

I don't think that attitude was correct. I'm a supporter of substantial military spending. You need strategic aircraft, you need good helicopters, you need good armoured personnel carriers, and you need a good navy that can support peacekeeping operations.

I don't want to accuse anyone of setting out to Americanize the Canadian military as a goal. I think we're Americanizing the Canadian military because of a combination of factors that have contributed to a direction of development. [But] if we had a highly trained, well-equipped, fast-moving, peacekeeping-capable military that could put 4,000 to 5,000 soldiers into places like Darfur or Lebanon on a month's notice, the amount of good we could do in the world would massively outweigh any good that we are currently doing in Kandahar.

A last question on foreign policy. You say we continue to be an influential middle power - whatever that means - but whereas we once punched above our weight, we now pull our punches. Why is that?

There are a number of reasons, but I think a lot of Canadians, particularly my gen- eration, bought into [philosopher] George Grant's thesis that Canada as an independent country has effectively ceased to exist. That has had a quite pervasive effect on how Canadians think about Canada's place in the world. And so, essentially, on the really big issues, we've been content to drift along on the slipstream of the United States.

Michael Valpy is a writer with The Globe and Mail.


From the preface to Intent For A Nation (Douglas & McIntyre) by Michael Byers:

It is a strange experience returning to one's country after an extended period abroad. Everything is familiar, yet so much has changed.

Returning can improve your understanding of where you come from, since you have seen how things are done differently elsewhere.

Returning can also help you see changes that, because they have occurred so slowly, are less visible to those who have stayed at home. For me the most shocking change was the dramatic increase in the number of homeless people on the streets of our cities, in this one of the wealthiest countries on Earth.

But my time outside Canada has also made me far more optimistic about this country's future.

It is time to assert our historical independence and take progressive action on the challenges facing Canada and the world today.

As Canadians, we should dare to dream great dreams. As Canadians, we should dare to make them happen.

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