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Little talk on the hustings of Canada's role in Libya Add to ...

In Libya, a new doctrine of international order is being tested by coalition forces and rebel fighters. It's the trial of a Canadian-born concept - responsibility to protect - but none of our campaigning political leaders have seen fit to talk much about what it means when it's put to the test.

Will Canadian jets bomb Libyan troops or tanks? Is that protecting civilians or serving as the air force for the rebels? Would we arm them? Are Canada's CF-18s to fly over Libya for six months, or two years?

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Here's one answer from military officers: Yes, Canadian fighter jets can bomb Libyan tanks or troops, either because they are attacking Libyans, because they have, or even because they have the potential to do so. Other answers are less clear.

Canadian leaders, it seems, have agreed to agree about the mission, and leave the messiest questions off the campaign trail, just as they did, for the most part, in 2005-06, when Canadian troops moved into Kandahar, Afghanistan. This week, Foreign Affairs Minister Lawrence Cannon sent his deputy minister to the London conference on Libya, while he stuck to the campaign trail.

The irony is that in Libya the world is essentially taking the first real bite of "responsibility to protect," an idea developed through a Canadian initiative, and which counts Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff among its parents. Stephen Harper, though he never embraced the notion, has effectively adopted it on Libya.

The United Nations resolution authorized international intervention that trumps sovereignty within Libya's borders in order to protect Libya's people.

But what about those unanswered questions about what it means in Libya, and what Canada will support? During the election campaign, Canada is missing from the international debate, and there's little talk on the hustings.

There was a parliamentary debate before the election, followed by a unanimous vote. All parties agreed that a no-fly zone was necessary. The NDP and Liberals, however, said it cannot be endless; the Tories' Laurie Hawn, though, said, "we will enforce the no-fly zone for as long as it is required." Not exactly all settled.

So far, Canadian CF-18s have attacked radar sites and ammunition depots. But coalition planes from other countries have bombed Colonel Gadhafi's tanks and vehicles and Canadian fighters can also be authorized do that, Major-General Tom Lawson, assistant chief of staff of the air force, said Wednesday.

Would Canadian jets clear away tanks so rebels can advance? They won't act as an air force for the rebels, Gen. Lawson said.

Would we arm rebels? British Prime Minister David Cameron says it could be done under the UN resolution. Russia says no. Canada? Mr. Cannon's office didn't have an answer on Wednesday.

Those distinctions might seem like technicalities since many countries want to oust Col. Gadhafi. But going too far might split the coalition. It might prevent a future "responsibility to protect" intervention at the UN, if Russia and China cite Libya as an example of mission creep. Not going farther might mean Col. Gadhafi stays for a long time.

"He simply will not last very long. I think that is the basis on which we're moving forward," Mr. Harper said on March 19. But there's certainly a chance he'll survive in Tripoli, prevented from regaining the east as long as the coalition stays.

It's hard to forecast the future, but that's more reason to discuss it in a campaign. In the 2005-06 campaign, the new Canadian mission in Kandahar was barely discussed. In the last week, the NDP's Jack Layton opposed a "war-like offensive role" in Afghanistan but supported peacekeeping. Most Canadians probably thought that was what it would be.

Libya, too, might not be as expected. And it requires debate, even if it's not a wedge to win votes.

Campbell Clark writes about foreign affairs from Ottawa

Follow on Twitter: @camrclark

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