Why Leaders Won’t Talk About the World Beyond Our Borders

One of the most difficult and important problems confronting the international community is what to do when a government turns its guns on its own people. In Libya, Canada and other countries chose military intervention. Our jets are in the air at this very moment.

Also at this very moment, the man who ordered the military into action is seeking a mandate to form the next government. His opponent is a human rights scholar with special expertise in the very issue of international interventions to protect people from their own governments. It’s hard to imagine circumstances more likely to produce a sustained debate about this engagement in particular and Canadian foreign policy in general.

And yet hardly a word has been said in the election about Libya or anything beyond our borders. Nor is that likely to change.

For Stephen Harper, it would be risk without reward. He can’t use Libya as a wedge because the Liberals supported the intervention. Worse, talking about Libya would raise questions about Afghanistan, and on that file the Liberal team of Michael Ignatieff and Bob Rae have been far more principled and consistent. Still worse, it would resurrect Iraq, and Harper would prefer voters not remember that he was a passionate supporter of Canadian participation in that colossal cockup. And worst of all, any discussion of foreign policy would remind the electorate that his government was the first in Canadian history to try and fail to land a seat on the United Nations Security Council.

Better to stick with funding for Quebec snowmobile clubs.

One might expect better of Michael Ignatieff, globe-trotting journalist, chronicler of war and nationalism, and international human rights scholar. But Ignatieff, too, would prefer to keep the campaign nice and parochial.

With a barrage of essays in the New York Times and elsewhere, Ignatieff put his words and his prestige as a liberal intellectual behind the invasion of Iraq. He was far from the only one. Indeed, an entire cadre of liberal intellectuals supported the war. But when it went disastrously wrong, Ignatieff was estranged from his natural constituency and the humiliating mea culpa he published in the Times was a virtual precondition for taking the Liberal leadership. I suspect he would very much like to lie on his deathbed without ever having heard the word “Iraq” again.

But Iraq is only one pole of the debate. The other is Rwanda, an indescribable slaughter that could have been stopped by armed intervention but was not. And between those two poles are many other points of reference. There’s Afghanistan, the slow-motion failure. Kosovo, the limited success. And Britain’s Operation Palliser in Sierra Leone, an intervention nobody knows about because it was a quick and complete triumph.

I’m sure Michael Ignatieff knows all about Operation Palliser since he worked with the UN on what is known as the “responsibility to protect.” That’s the duty of the international community to put a stop to war crimes, genocide, and crimes against humanity when national governments cannot or will not. It does not authorize interventions for oil or power or national security, and so it did not apply to the invasion of Iraq. It is only about stopping the strong from slaughtering the weak. What could be more Canadian? Two Canadians -Paul Martin and Lloyd Axworthy -were even instrumental in promoting the idea at the UN. And what could be more relevant? It’s in the news right now.

But Ignatieff won’t go there. And not only because of the spectre of Iraq.

Following the traditional Liberal strategy, Ignatieff’s campaign is leaning left and while helping the world’s downtrodden is a popular sentiment on that side of the spectrum the intervention envisioned in “responsibility to protect” must often involve military force. That’s a problem. Because much of the Canadian left believes in a “Pearsonian” fantasy.

Canada has traditionally been an honest broker, they say. A neutral party. We have “peacekeepers,” not soldiers. We do not fight wars. We’re not like Americans.

This is mostly nonsense, but the silliest aspect of it is the adjective “Pearsonian.” Lester Pearson despised witless anti-Americanism, he wasn’t remotely “neutral,” and he was a strong supporter of a Canadian military capable of fighting and winning wars. The contemporary leader he most resembles is Michael Ignatieff. Or to be more precise, Pearson resembles the Michael Ignatieff of 2005 -who gave a speech that condemned reflexive anti-Americanism, insisted “men with guns” were needed to protect vulnerable people, and condemned Canada for cutting military funding while coasting on an “entirely bogus reputation as peacekeepers.” That is Pearsonian, ladies and gentlemen.

But the left clings to its myth and so, every election, when the Liberals lean left, they turn pacifist. In 2004, Paul Martin claimed the Conservatives wanted “invasion forces” when Stephen Harper said he’d buy essentially the same troop ships Martin himself had promised to buy two months earlier. This is how it always goes. Now Michael Ignatieff is saying things like “we choose families, not fighter jets,” even though the actual Liberal policy is to buy fighter jets -and despite the fact that “we choose families, not fighter jets” is precisely the sort of prissy sentimentality he so rightly condemned in 2005.

Add it all up and there’s very little chance that Libya or foreign affairs generally will receive anything more than glancing attention. Which is hardly a change. Remember that in 2006, while the military was setting up for its toughest mission since the Korean War, we had an election campaign in which Afghanistan was almost completely ignored. Few noticed. Fewer cared.

Of course it would be satisfying to blame it all on politicians but this is a democracy. The politicians want our votes. They will give us what we demand.

If Canadian politics is parochial, we have no one to blame but ourselves.