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A Canadian Forces CF-18 Hornet fighter jet taxis at the Birgi NATO Airbase in Trapani, Sicily, March 24, 2011 (TONY GENTILE/Tony Gentile/Reuters)
A Canadian Forces CF-18 Hornet fighter jet taxis at the Birgi NATO Airbase in Trapani, Sicily, March 24, 2011 (TONY GENTILE/Tony Gentile/Reuters)

As politicians hit hustings, Canada's Libya mission flies under the radar Add to ...

What is Canada doing in Libya?

Good question. And good luck getting an answer with the country about to be plunged into an election campaign that will have little to do with the rights and wrongs of a foreign war.

According to UN Security Council Resolution 1973, our six CF-18s (backed by CP-140 Aurora reconnaissance aircraft and HMCS Charlottetown) have been sent to enforce a no-fly zone, preventing the transport of arms and munitions into Libya and protecting the country's civilian population from its unpredictable leader. But with the leadership of the mission in day-to-day flux, no exit strategy on the horizon and Canada's decision makers distracted by election excitement, who knows where the actions of Moammar Gadhafi will take us?

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"Mission creep has already happened," retired major-general Lewis Mackenzie said, referring to the French military's widening of its attacks beyond the UN's formal confines. But Canada's role has also expanded: Our troops went on a mission to rescue people in the line of fire, then to deliver aid, then to escort sorties. Now they're dropping bombs.

Shouldn't we have had a more precise definition of our role going in? Debate about intervention in Libya remains robust in the United States, where Congress prides itself on cross-examining the President's eagerness for action even after the troops have been dispatched. After heated debate, Germany refused to join the coalition because of doubts about where intervention would lead.

Meanwhile, our Parliament gave the intervention a pass without much interference. Opposition members asked the right questions: How long will it last, what constitutes success, how much will we have to pay? But when the government offered no clear answers, opposition parties supported the Conservative motion to deploy troops in accord with the UN resolution - which calls for protection of civilians, but falls well short of authorizing regime change.

Widespread public support for Canada's mission in Afghanistan has made it harder for parliamentarians to question the rationale for military intervention. "We've got out of the habit of talking critically about why we go to war," said Kim Richard Nossal of Queen's University. "The notion of supporting our troops has now been embraced by all parties, it's not just for Harper Conservatives."

At least there's some wariness about sending troops to Libya, if only after the fact. "It's an intervention we have to keep an eye on," said Liberal MP Bob Rae. "We want it to be subject to the scrutiny of Parliament."

The government must consult the House if the mission isn't completed within three months. But who's going to talk up exit strategies and poorly defined missions in the meantime when politicians are out chasing votes, leaving the House shuttered and silent for a full six weeks?

Intervening to protect civilian populations is by nature a messy and uncertain business. "You can't ask what the endgame is going to be down the road," said former Liberal foreign minister Bill Graham. "Stopping the massacre right now is the endgame of intervention. No one has the time to stop and think what the consequences will be."

Yet there's reason to think that the debate about Libya was so muted simply because an election was on its way.

"The opposition parties may have been cautious about handing an issue to the Conservatives that could be used against them on the campaign trail," said Michael Byers of the University of British Columbia. "They don't want to be portrayed as against human rights, against democracy, against our troops."

If the Harper government falls on Friday, who will take on responsibility for reining in the mission creep? In Mr. Rae's view, it will be up to the Canadian public "to express their concerns to make sure that it stays strictly within the four corners of the UN resolution."

As the allies try to make up the rules of humanitarian intervention on the spot, there's a good chance one of them will push those boundaries and encourage others to do the same. Which is why it's essential, Mr. Mackenzie said, for Canada to resist the temptation of mission creep and make sure the CF-18s operate within the defined UN limits.

"We have to watch what they are permitted to attack," he said. "I don't think it's been clearly determined at the political or military level."

The ever-changing role of the mission was made clear earlier this week when two CF-18s undertook air-to-ground attacks - an evolution from the original strategy of opposing Libyan jets and helicopters.

No country in the coalition is more vulnerable to feelings of uncertainty than Canada, given the fact that it has been more a follower than a leader in a quickly organized intervention led with varying degrees of aggression by the French, the British and the more reluctant Americans.

"Much of the so-called debate about humanitarian intervention has been carried on by our neighbours," Prof. Nossal notes. "We went along with an outcome that was determined in Europe."

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