A word of caution for Justin Trudeau at the UN

Once we break it, we’ve bought it, argues Evan Solomon

Libyan forces allied with the U.N.-backed government fire weapons during a battle with IS fighters in Sirte, Libya, July 21, 2016. (Goran Tomasevic/Reuters)

Libyan forces allied with the U.N.-backed government fire weapons during a battle with IS fighters in Sirte, Libya, July 21, 2016. (Goran Tomasevic/Reuters)

It wasn’t on the same asinine level of George W. Bush’s “Mission Accomplished” photo op, the infamous premature victory shot that came to define Bush’s Middle East mess, but when Canada’s then-foreign affairs minister John Baird blazed into Benghazi, Libya, in 2011 and signed a bomb with “Free Libya, Democracy,” it came awfully close. NATO forces had been told not to sign ordinances because it was viewed as arrogant and crass. “Politicians should sign peace treaties, not bombs,” one senior NATO officer on the mission told me recently. Baird didn’t care. This was his first war as foreign affairs minister and he was literally going to put his signature on it. A Canadian general, Charlie Bouchard, led the NATO mission. Canada was at the sharp end and Baird was all in. “The one thing we can say categorically is that they [the rebels] wouldn’t be any worse than Col. Gadhafi,” Baird declared, as if the number of dead civilians was a legitimate way to judge the success of a new government, just as long as it wasn’t “worse than Gadhafi.” Even by that chilling standard, Baird was epically wrong.

It got worse. The gory civil war that followed the NATO mission fertilized the country with an infestation of jihadists, including ISIS. The U.S. and the U.K. are back at it, running hundreds of bombing sorties to contain them. This week the severely crippled UN-backed Libyan government in Tripoli lost control of virtually all key oil terminals to the forces of Gen. Khalifa Haftar. Oil production is down to 200,000 barrels a day, from 1.6 million before 2011. The UN head of the support mission in Libya, Martin Kobler, did what the UN usually does when it is powerless. He expressed “grave concern over the fighting.” In five years, NATO bombs have transformed into UN blanks. To use a non-technical phrase, Libya is now a yard sale of horrors.

Related: Canada steps up with a new NATO commitment

I bring all this up because the lessons of Libya are relevant as Prime Minister Justin Trudeau goes to the United Nations this week, where he may announce long-awaited details of Canada’s new UN peacekeeping operation. Up to now it’s been a mystery mission and there’s concern that any new operation will fall into the same traps NATO fell into in Libya. Canada has promised 600 troops and 150 police officers to some UN mission, likely in Africa, but no one knows where or when they will go. I asked the Global Affairs department for details and they responded like students working on a class project. “The Government of Canada is doing its homework to see how and where Canada can responsibly contribute to ongoing peace and security in the world.” The defence minister, a former solider, candidly admits the mission will likely require the use of deadly force. In UN parlance, that’s called a Chapter 7 mission, but any Canadian who remembers Rwanda or Bosnia knows what that means in plain talk: a dangerous combat mission.

You could fill one of Canada’s giant Globemaster airlift planes with speculation as to where Canada will send its troops. Mali, a desperately unstable place where offshoots of al-Qaeda are based, is frequently mentioned; 68 peacekeepers have been killed there since 2013. According to one source, this would be too dangerous. Another real possibility is Central African Republic, which has been plagued by a three-year civil war. The UN mission there is treacherous and seemingly without end, but there is room to reinforce the existing team. It’s not hard to find conflicts in Africa that need help. On a purely humanitarian basis, it’s a noble impulse. That doesn’t mean it’s strategic, winnable, or even practical. Sectarian violence, greed for resources and ethnic war don’t function according to neat grids and clean lines. That can’t paralyze Canada from acting, but it can’t be dismissed either. In the business of combat there is an old saying: “easy in, hard out”—it’s always simple to justify sending troops into a situation, but almost impossible to have them leave. It’s better known as the “Pottery Barn rule,” a phrase connected to former U.S. general Colin Powell. Once you break it, you bought it.“You are going to be the proud owner of 25 million people,” Powell told Bush before the invasion of Iraq. “You will own all their hopes, aspirations, and problems. You’ll own it all.”

In Libya, NATO forces broke it, but didn’t buy it. They bolted. “NATO did what the mission asked us to do,” says Charlie Bouchard, now retired. “When it came to pass the puck back to the UN, there was no one to pass the puck to.” He’s right. “Canada, alongside its partners, failed to properly plan for the day after the 2011 intervention in Libya,” says Alex Wilner, at Carleton University’s Norman Paterson School of International Affairs. “While some of our allies—the U.S., Britain, Italy and France, chief among them—have seen fit to militarily re-engage in hope of primarily beating back ISIS, Canada has played a different hand, focusing on political stability and global security.”

Earlier this month, Stéphane Dion announced the last of Libya’s chemical weapons have been removed from the country, to be destroyed. Canada contributed $22 million to the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons to achieve that goal over the last four years. Is that enough, given the role we played in destabilizing Libya? Hardly. Still, there is little chance Canada’s new UN mission will include boots on the ground in Libya.

Back in August of 2011 I interviewed John Baird and he assured me then that the conflict was “quickly coming to an end.” He looked so certain, but clearly he had no idea what he was talking about. Soldiers don’t lose wars. Politicians do. You never see them bleed, though—they go on to take jobs at law firms and banks—but years later the stains spread. This next mission in Africa will follow the failures in Libya, Rwanda and Somalia. Whatever we break, this time, we will have to buy.


A word of caution for Justin Trudeau at the UN

  1. Canada needs to be a solution to things happening in the world, not sit on the sidelines and be a problem like we have been for last number of years, as a country we need to prove to the world we can also be a beacon of the future of how progress can be achieved in the world, tolerance, women’s rights, bringing countries together instead of helping divide them, and help the world with its conflicts. It’s easy to sit on the sidelines and let everyone else do the grunt work in the world, like the US. You can say can all the bad you want about the US and even Trump, but if there is disaster in any part of the world, you will find that the US are always the first on site to help people in the world when disaster happens, I mean anywhere in the world. We as a country need more footprints in the world, but as facilitators, and not as liberators. Just look at what is happening to that poor lady in jail in Iran from Canada, we use to have an embassy in Iran, thanks to the Harper Doctrine, it’s gone. Without footprints in the world or UN, we as a country will be denying our selves of the right to be true crusaders of what our country is made of, immigration and modern day progressive, so everyone in this country, can live together. Lets move our country ahead in the 21st century, and put the past in the rearview mirror.

    • Going to fight UN and US colonial wars in Africa, which is what these so-called “peace-making” missions are is NOT helping the world be a better place.

      Obama and HIllary “broke” Africa with their moronic foreign policies. Tell them to clean up their own mess.

      • I TOLD you not to take those green pills!

        • Please do what Emilyone says. She knows best.

          • Tsk. Envy is a nasty thing Eleanor

    • So you approve of this incompetent excuse for a PM sending our troops into, what is essentially, a meat grinder. This is NOT peacekeeping, this is war. This is an attempt by S##t for brains to secure a seat on the security council with an overall objective of Globalizing the planet. Trudeau needs to pull his head of his fantasy filled Star Wars deluded ass. This man child is dangerous and is only working for his own self gratification. Our men and women will soon be returning to Canada in body bags, don’t kid yourself on this issue.