Skip to main content
john ibbitson

How far Stephen Harper has travelled since March 20, 2003, when he stood in the House of Commons and excoriated the Liberal government for failing to support the American invasion of Iraq.

Jean Chrétien had "betrayed Canada's history and its values," he thundered. The government had "left us standing for nothing, no realistic alternative, no point of principle and no vision of the future. It has left us standing with no one."

Tuesday, after mechanical delays, a solitary C-17 cargo plane trundled down a runway at CFB Trenton, the Harper government's sole substantive contribution to preventing the full seizure of Mali by Islamic extremists. The Prime Minister, despite pleas from African leaders, has ruled out any direct military action in that benighted country.

Ready to join the invasion of Iraq. Unwilling to send more than one plane for one week to Mali. That's a long road. But Mr. Harper has not walked it alone. At each turn, he was right behind the Americans.

In the 10 years since the Iraq war began, the United States has become far more cautious about foreign entanglements. And so has Canada.

When the Conservatives came to power in 2006, Mr. Harper stood four-square behind Canada's intervention in Afghanistan, this country's proud contribution to what was once called the war on terror. Although the Liberals had launched that mission, the Conservatives quickly took ownership of it, along with the buildup of the Canadian military that was part of it.

That mission cost the lives of 158 Canadian soldiers and five civilians. It cost the treasury at least $11-billion. And the results were ambiguous at best.

Barack Obama considered ending the war in Iraq one of the signal achievements of his first term. Withdrawal from Afghanistan is a key priority in the second term. Canada has already ended the combat component of its Afghan mission. Will that country ever again become a staging ground for terrorist attacks on the West, meaning the war was in vain? We'll see.

The Obama administration seeks to to limit American involvement in Africa and the Middle East, while pivoting strategically to the Pacific and Asia. The Harper government refused a United Nations request to take command of peacekeeping forces in the Congo.

Like the U.S., Canada fought the war in Libya from the air, leaving it to local insurgents to topple Moammar Ghadafi. And now Mr. Harper has ruled out any combat forces of any kind in Mali, just as the Americans have said they will help only with logistics and intelligence.

Former Canadian diplomat Robert Fowler warns that the West is placing its own security at risk by allowing radical Islamists to advance their goal of control over a swath of Africa from the Indian Ocean to the Atlantic– "one 8,000 kilometre band across the fattest part of Africa of absolute chaos," as he told CTV Monday.

Canada and the West can either respond now to the threat, he said, or it can respond "later, more expensively in blood and treasure."

But Roland Paris, Director of the Centre for International Policy Studies at University of Ottawa, disagrees.

"It's relatively easy to deploy foreign forces into a local conflict," he said Tuesday in an e-mail exchange. "The hard part is figuring out how to remove these forces once they've become entangled in a local conflict."

In any event, the French have decided to intervene; the C-17 is for their use as they move supplies into the conflict zone.

There are other factors at work in Canada's decision to join the United States in leading from behind. Like the United States, Canada is hoping to knock down its deficit in part by curtailing military spending. Like the Americans, Canadians no longer seem to fear another terrorist attack from al-Qaeda on North American soil.

Like the Obama administration, the Harper government knows the people are weary of war, and want the troops home.

That could change in an instant, if there's another terrorist attack. But for now it's one cargo plane for Mali, and nothing more. A long road indeed.