Did Canada Play a “Critical” Role in Libya?

Prime Minister Stephen Harper continues to take bows for Canada’s involvement in the Libya mission. “Canada has played a critical role both politically and militarily to protect innocent civilians against a cruel and oppressive regime,” he said in a statement issued today.

Mr. Harper certainly deserves credit for committing Canadian ships and airplanes to the NATO operation, and for doing so without imposing the kind of caveats that limited the usefulness of other countries’ forces. Canadian CF-18s were able to perform combat missions and reportedly conducted approximately 10 percent of NATO’s strike sorties. Plus, a Canadian general was overall commander of the NATO mission.

Did that amount to a “critical” military role? Perhaps. I suspect that NATO could have gotten by without Canada’s contribution — which cannnot be said for the US, France or Britain. Nevertheless, Mr. Harper should be allowed some license: after all, he took a gamble in supporting the operation and that gamble paid off with the mission’s successful conclusion.

On the other hand, the Prime Minister’s claim that Canada played a critical political role is a different story. Yes, Canada took a strong position early, and joined other nations in recognizing the rebel National Transitional Council as the legitimate governing authority in Libya, but none of these steps indicates particular Canadian influence.

If anything, our political role was secondary. Canada was not present in the key venue at which the decision to authorize intervention in Libya was debated and made: the UN Security Council. We weren’t there because Mr. Harper’s government failed to win Canada a seat on the Council for the first time since 1948; and we failed to win the seat, in part, because Mr. Harper and his government have paid so little attention to diplomacy.

Diplomacy requires the cultivation of influence through relationships. You can’t win political influence in international affairs simply by stating positions and telling other countries that they’re wrong. Yet, that’s what the Conservative government has done — and what it appears to revel in doing. (See my colleague David Petrasek’s blog post for another take on this issue.)

Mr. Harper can’t have it both ways. Trumpeting Canada’s military prowess while disdaining its diplomatic traditions comes with consequences. Of course, Canada played an important military role in Libya. But let’s be clear: Portugal, which contributed no military assets to the NATO operation, but which beat Canada for a seat on the Security Council, arguably played a more “critical” political role in this episode than Canada did.

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