Opinion

Trudeau's peacekeeping announcement was a whole lot of nothing

It creates the illusion that Canada is committed to peacekeeping without making a meaningful commitment

UKRAINE-CRISIS/TRUDEAU

If anything, the announcement of several hundred fewer troops to be deployed... somewhere... was an both an admission that there are no viable peacekeeping operations to join in this world today, and an acknowledgment that Trudeau has no plans to reboot Canada's peacekeeping operations. (Reuters)

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Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's new peacekeeping policy is the product of a government that has dithered so long on the issue that it has ultimately decided to issue a non-announcement at a non-event.

After musing about going to Mali, thinking about helping out in South Sudan and endlessly waxing poetic about how peacekeeping is so vital to Canada's national identity, Trudeau has instead decided to do virtually nothing.

Rather than announcing a commitment to a specific peacekeeping mission (Trudeau promised up to 600 troops and 150 police officers) Canada's government will create a 200-person rapid reaction force to be deployed… somewhere to be determined.

It also promises to lend helicopters and strategic transport aircraft to the United Nations where needed.

Mediocre commitments

Both of these commitments are largely unremarkable: Canada already has a rapid reaction force (the Disaster Assistance Response Team) that is capable of assisting the UN, NATO or any domestic civil power. And many of the helicopters being flown by the Royal Canadian Air Force are so dangerously obsolescent as to be undesirable for foreign deployments.

If anything, the announcement is both an admission that there are no viable peacekeeping operations to join in this world today, and an acknowledgment that Trudeau has no plans to reboot Canada's peacekeeping operations after they have fallen to historic lows since the Liberals formed government.

Trudeau appears to have a moment of clarity earlier this month as he observed the centenary of the Great War battle of Passchendaele, where he commemorated the sacrifice and the military spirit of the Canadians who fought in that awful mud-mired conflict.

The battle is indicative of the warrior tradition in the Canadian military — a tradition that Trudeau has usually chosen to ignore, as he prefers to imagine that the Canada's armed forces have merely existed to support safe and sanitary peacekeeping missions around the world.

But if Trudeau's historical perspective is somewhat skewed, so too is his grasp of the current geo-political reality that has largely made traditional peacekeeping irrelevant.

Don't take my word for it. Retired Maj.-Gen. Lewis MacKenzie explained in a television interview this week just why Canada is not in Mali or Sundan.

"It's not peacekeeping, it's a protection mission and a protection mission requires combat skills," he said.

MacKenzie was saying the same things when he commanded the UN force in Bosnia in early 1990s. The UN decided to try peacekeeping where there was no peace to keep; MacKenzie had landed in the midst of a bloody and bitter civil war that divided the former Yugoslavia on the basis of ethnicity and religion.

The UN failed to rectify the situation and it took the robust military presence of NATO to stop the war and arrive at something resembling peace.

Trudeau announces UN Peacekeeping commitment 0:53

The Canadian military issued a memo some six months ago that clearly argued against deploying a peacekeeping force in Mali — despite Trudeau often suggesting that the troubled African nation was precisely where Canada ought to be.

The memo argued, quite effectively, that a mission to Mali was a potential operational disaster  and public relations nightmare because Canadian peacekeepers would inevitably have to face child soldiers who are fighting in the civil war. Canadians would have to kill — even kill children — or be killed.

Trudeau appears to have taken this advice to heart. But of course he doesn't want to abandon ship now, so he holds out this three-pronged strategy that creates the illusion that Canada is committed to peacekeeping without actually making any meaningful commitments.

Stab in the dark

Trudeau's announcement last was clearly another stab in the dark, an attempt to satisfy his core constituency without really delivering anything.

Just as Trudeau seemed unable to articulate a Canadian position on the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal last week — striving to appease both his labour supporters and free trade advocates in the Liberal caucus — so too he has produced a peacekeeping policy designed to appear to do something, without doing anything.

The announcement enables him to indefinitely postpone any peacekeeping commitment, while at the same time lauding the magnificence of peacekeeping in principle and its importance to the United Nations, despite its catastrophic failings as arbitrator of world security.

This column is part of CBC's Opinion section. For more information about this section, please read this editor's blog and our FAQ.

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