Inside Politics

Harper the hawk goes to Paris. Or is he Goldilocks?

The world does not wait for the Canadian Parliament to debate contempt, confidence and Bev Oda. Although his own government may not last a week, Stephen Harper felt compelled to fly through the night to help end Muammar Gadhafi's.

Will it work? It depends on how ruthless the Western powers are prepared to be. Harper - a hawk who condemned the Chrétien government's decision to stay out of Iraq - may find that a muscular approach is more popular this time.

At least, as long as it goes well.

Harper employed an apocalyptic tone in presenting his decision to play a role in, or at least over, Libya. It may be a junior role. Nothing much turns on the dispatch of 6 CF-18s to help enforce the no-fly zone. But Harper sold it as a case of freedom-or-bust.

"One either believes in freedom or one just says one believes in freedom," he declared.

"The Libyan people have shown by their sacrifice that they believe in it. Assisting them is a moral obligation upon those of us who profess to believe in this great ideal."

Of course, the Iraq invasion was propelled by the same "great ideal" and the same "moral obligation" - and, yet, Jean Chrétien's decision to keep Canada out of it turned out to be the most popular thing his government ever did.

And, when an election looms, popularity is a fine thing.

The Liberals, of course, took a different view when it came to the Afghan war - but so did Harper. That war revealed a Harper who's only as hawkish as he needs to be. In office, he said Canada would not "cut and run" but expressed little confidence that the war could ever be won - and insisted the combat mission would end on schedule this year. He only agreed to keep a training mission in place when the Liberals, now in opposition, suggested one. That made it safe to agree.

Harper never tried to persuade Canadians to keep combat troops in Afghanistan because of a "moral obligation" to fight for the great ideal of freedom.

It's not too hot, not too cold: the Goldilocks foreign policy. A hawk in opposition, Harper rarely gets too far in front of public opinion, now that he's in government.

The new, militant tone on Libya is a case in point. Did we hear Harper or his ministers baying for the downfall of Gadhafi before the UN decided, after much delay, to use force against him? No. But, now, we hear the ever-cautious Lawrence Cannon, Canada's foreign minister, insisting that "Gadhafi must leave."

Is Harper a hawk, then, only when it's safe? Maybe, if you think the UN has made it safe.

But you may be wrong. As the New York Times' Roger Cohen pointed out on Friday, the UN ordered a no-fly zone in Bosnia in 1992 to protect civilians - but it didn't stop the slaughter at Srebenica. As Cohen puts it, "Enough said." Margaret Thatcher wasn't so shy. She said the West was an "accomplice to a massacre."

Will the Libyan no-fly zone really serve to stop the killing or, as in Bosnia, will it merely make us feel good about ourselves for a while?

Oppostion Leader Michael Ignatieff is fine with Canada pitching in and is justifiably proud of the Liberals' support for the principle of a UN "responsibility to protect" civilians. Who isn't? Certainly it seems popular, and even safe, to hammer Gadhafi. President Nicolas Sarkozy of France, Prime Minister David Cameron of Britain and US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, all meeting Harper in Paris, will find him a willing ally.

But will it all work out well? Will one of the world's ghastliest dictators be brought low, and will a bloodbath be averted? Or will a hellish stalemate endure with a divided Libya and no end in sight because the UN said no to occupation forces? And if the west puts no boots on the ground, will the Egyptians or the Saudis take risks and shed blood or will they leave that to the west and blame us if it all goes awry? Will we shrink from going in and killing Gadhafi and then look back later with regret?

We don't know any of that yet.

Tags: gadhafi, harper, libya, military, no-fly zone, paris talks, united nations

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