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On Libya, Harper - and the West - have played their cards well

Prime Minister Stephen Harper shakes hands with Canadian soldiers after delivering a speech at the air force base in Trapani, Italy, on Sept. 1, 2011.

Sean Kilpatrick/THE CANADIAN PRESS

Sometime before Sept. 27, Stephen Harper will likely ask Canada's Parliament to renew the federal government's mandate to use force in support of what used to be rebel forces in Libya.

Parliament will give him that mandate. That's one benefit of having a majority government. It's also a recognition that, on this file at least, the Prime Minister has played his hand exceedingly well.

The Conservatives have established what is quickly becoming an unwritten constitutional convention: Before the Canadian government sends forces into combat, the House of Commons must be consulted.

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There's nothing in the actual Constitution requiring that. Mr. Harper inaugurated the practice to force the Liberals to go on the record in support of the war in Afghanistan.

That calculated political ploy has evolved into an important new parliamentary power. That both the Liberals and the NDP have twice voted to endorse the Libyan mission reflects the maturity of their leadership (as it then was) and support for the rebellion among Canadians.

This time, the NDP has made it clear that it wants Canada's military role to end. But the Liberals will probably vote with the Conservatives. After all, as Western interventions in that part of the world go, this one has been a resounding success.

It didn't always look that way. Not that many weeks ago, the rebel advance appeared stalled; the rebels themselves were divided and drifting toward internecine violence. Once again, Canada seemed to have found itself mired in a well-meaning intervention that was costing money, risking lives and producing no good result.

But the misadventures in Iraq and Afghanistan have taught Western leaders a few things, the most important being that rebels seeking to overthrow dictators must lead the fight themselves.

The Western powers imposed economic sanctions on Moammar Gadhafi's regime, and Canada's sanctions went particularly far. The United States stayed in the background, counting on France and Britain to provide the muscle. Canada also stepped up with a strong contingent of CF-18 warplanes and other support, and a Canadian general led the NATO mission.

Most important, apart from select special forces, NATO avoided the use of ground troops. As a result, the rebels can rightly take credit for overthrowing the regime. Ragtag as they are, they nonetheless enjoy a legitimacy today that governments in Baghdad and Kabul can only envy.

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Mr. Harper and other NATO leaders had every reason to congratulate themselves when they met in Paris Thursday.

We're not home yet. The new regime is untested and potentially unstable. Colonel Gadhafi remains at large, and pockets of the country appear to still be loyal to the old regime. Continued NATO support could be needed for months to come, in which case Mr. Harper has promised Canada will continue to do its part. And he'll have Parliament's support to do it.

In the meantime, maybe, just for a moment, we can stop the partisan sniping back here and celebrate the past six months. The Arab Spring has been messy since the first demonstrations in Tunis, but it is still spring. Just as so many of us never thought the Berlin Wall would fall, so too many of us never imagined a wave of popular uprisings would bring down so many Arab strongmen.

But they did. And Canada was there, in the thick of it, doing everything it could to help. In our nation's story, this is a good page.

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