John Baird went to Libya to take his own measure of the leaders of the rebel cause, and left a believer.
Canada's new foreign minister paid a brief surprise visit to Benghazi on Monday, to meet with members of the National Transition Council, the political arm of the insurgency that seeks to overthrow Colonel Moammar Gadhafi.
The ability of the rebels to organize a coherent government remains uncertain, given the disparate and often conflicting elements of Libyan society, which is riven by tribal and regional divisions. But "the National Transition Council represents the best hope for the future of Libya," Mr. Baird repeatedly told reporters in a conference call from Rome after the meeting.
"They've laid out a road map for where they'd like to take the country" that involves "a democratic Libya that respects human rights, that respects the rule of law," Mr. Baird maintained.
In any case, he observed, "the one thing we can say categorically is that they couldn't be any worse than Col. Gadhafi."
The Harper government took much heat at home for being late to recognize the Tunisian and Egyptian uprisings that launched the Arab Spring. But with a close political confidant now in Foreign Affairs, Mr. Harper has pushed Canada to the very front of those defending NATO's mission in Libya.
Though Mr. Baird is only the latest in a string of foreign leaders who have visited Libya to offer support to the insurgency, few countries have demonstrated that support so concretely. Not only has Canada joined several European nations in recognizing the National Transitional Council as the legitimate representative of the Libyan people, a Canadian general commands the NATO air and naval forces in Libya. Canadian jets bomb government targets while a Canadian frigate patrols the coast.
And Monday's meetings, the timing of which were kept secret for security reasons, mark a high-profile stepping out for Stephen Harper's fifth foreign affairs minister.
Unlike his predecessors, Mr. Baird is a trusted ally of the Prime Minister, a fellow ideological warrior who in previous portfolios dampened politically dangerous conflagrations over everything from global warming to spending on the G-20 summit, and oversaw the infrastructure program during the 2009 recession.
That he would show up in Libya less than two months into a new and very different job - neither as cabinet minister to former Ontario premier Mike Harris nor in his years serving Mr. Harper did the Ottawa MP display any particular interest in foreign affairs - speaks to the trust the Prime Minister has invested in Mr. Baird.
He spent half a day in the rebel-held city of Benghazi, highlighted by a 30-minute chat with coalition leader Abdul Jalil, followed by a meeting with council members.
Before the meeting, "I didn't fully appreciate the courage ... of the members of the council and the sacrifice that they'd made," Mr. Baird told reporters.
"I saw a commitment and a passion that you can only see when you're sitting across the table from these men and women," he said. "It certainly had a positive impression on me."
Roland Paris, who specializes in international relations at University of Ottawa, said he was encouraged by Mr. Baird's hands-on approach to assessing the situation in Libya.
But "it's still not clear whether the council can ... prevent retaliatory score-settling and deliver on their promises to initiate democratizing reforms" if and when Mr. Gadhafi falls, Prof. Paris added.
"What I hope John Baird and his officials were doing during the visit was giving those claims a bit of a reality check."
Mr. Harper could soon get to conduct a reality check of his own. Mr. Baird extended an invitation to Mr. Jalil to come to Canada to meet with officials and parliamentarians.
Mr. Baird's visit coincided with a day of bad news for Mr. Gadhafi. While rebel forces claimed to have made advances, the International Criminal Court sought his arrest, along with his son and his intelligence chief, for the killing, injuries, arrest and imprisonment of hundreds of civilians during the first 12 days of the uprising in Libya, and for trying to cover up the alleged crimes.
After Benghazi, Mr. Baird travelled on to Sicily, headquarters of Canada's participation in the NATO-led bombing campaign.
In keeping with a long-held air force tradition, he signed a Canadian bomb destined for Gadhafi's infrastructure with the message: "Free Libya. Democracy."
Someone else had already written another message on the bomb: "This postal service don't strike."
With a report from The Canadian PressReport Typo/Error