It would have been a hot ticket: General David Petraeus, the CIA director who resigned over an affair, sparking a scandal that has taken over front pages, has backed out of plans to deliver a speech at the Halifax International Security Forum this weekend.
Defence Minister Peter MacKay, the forum’s host, says it’s “just as well.”
“I suspect it would be a huge media feeding frenzy and take away from some of the other discussions we’re going to have there,” he said in an interview.
The Halifax forum, after all, is Mr. MacKay’s baby, the international confab he hosts every year that draws U.S. cabinet secretaries and senators, ministers, officials, generals, and academics to a conference on the security challenges facing the world.
Now the hallways of power brokers will surely also buzz with talk of the scandal that has jarred the world of many who will attend. Mr. MacKay, who met Gen. Petraeus several times in Washington, at NATO meetings, and in Afghanistan, where the general commanded coalition forces, said the scandal is a blow to morale of the American security community.
“I was extremely impressed with his military prowess, his communications to NATO,” Mr. MacKay said. “And this is clearly – in addition to difficult for the CIA, from an operational, strategic standpoint – it’s also a torpedo in the side of the American military.”
“This is more than a distraction at a critical time for them,” he said. “It’s difficult, when they are still very engaged in Afghanistan, they’ve just come through the election, the world is very volatile – [to say it’s] not helpful or wanted would be an understatement.”
The fact that the CIA director was heading to Halifax before the scandal broke is in itself a testament to the weighty players who now go to a conference created four years ago – a place where, Mr. MacKay said, heavy-hitters are supposed to drop stock speeches for “living room” exchanges. The Halifax forum has become a major stop on the global security community’s circuit – and has injected a Canadian presence into it.
Last year, U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta led the bill, and Israeli Defence Minister Ehud Barak warned Iran was rushing toward a nuclear bomb. This year, U.S. Senators John McCain and Mark Udall will lead what Mr. MacKay touts as one of the biggest U.S. Congressional delegations ever to set foot in Canada.
This weekend’s conference comes just after the U.S. election, with the “fiscal cliff” threatening to steer the U.S. into deeper economic difficulty and forcing budget slashing, including cuts to an already-squeezed military.
War-weary Americans are also looking to wind down operations in Afghanistan in 2014 and there are simmering questions about whether the West will see a responsibility to intervene in strife-torn Syria or Mali.
Among the topics slated for discussion in Halifax – aside from hotspots such as Syria and Iran – are the future role of American leadership, and the responsibility of democracies to intervene in conflicts overseas.
“I think you are going to see a great deal of discussion branching out from that larger subject matter of American leadership,” Mr. MacKay said.
There is perhaps now, as Western countries cut back defence spending and lick their wounds from battles in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya, a question about the willingness to intervene abroad.
“Any subject involving interventions these days – you can’t contemplate interventions without thinking about the cost in blood and treasure, and the state of our military being stretched,” Mr. MacKay said.
All countries are now being forced to look to working with others in new ways as they figure out how they might mount operations in the future, he said.
“We’ve come through one of the highest tempos of operations since Korea, so we are definitely reflecting on that. And definitely going through an important examination of our resources, and what that means,” he said. “Other countries are as well – in fact, I would suggest even more drastically than us, when you look at per-capita [spending].”
The Halifax forum is also, in a sense, a way of injecting Canada into the global security debate.
The idea was born, Mr. MacKay said, when he attended events like the influential Munich Security Conference, and found the discussions revolved around Europe and the U.S. He wanted Europeans to be in a place where they might hear about Canada’s responsibilities in the Arctic, or NORAD, or the Americas.
“I got a little tired of the discussion being Europe-America, Europe-America,” he said. “To that extent, it has changed a little bit of the thinking.”