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Tories let election skirmishes eclipse war in Libya

Libyans loyal to Libya's leader Muammar Gaddafi chant slogans in the town of Mizdah, 180 km south of Tripoli March 29, 2011. Officials said an army ammunition depot in Mizdah was hit by a Western air strike and the ensuing explosion caused damage to buildings as far as 15 km away.

ZOHRA BENSEMRA/Zohra Bensemra/Reuters

With a Canadian general in command and fighter jets bombing Libyan targets, the Harper government is facing questions about whether it should crack election-campaign constraints to engage more with the world on the international mission in Libya.

By convention, electioneering governments move to caretaker mode and limit their politicians' role on the world stage. But this campaign comes with an unusual twist: it coincides with a new, major international military intervention where Canada is playing a sizable role.

On Tuesday, while 40 foreign ministers debated how far they'll go to oppose Moammar Gadhafi, Canada's Foreign Affairs Minister Lawrence Cannon was on the campaign trail, while his top civil servant, Morris Rosenberg, represented Canada at the high-level conference on Libya in London - barely visible in the back row of the delegates' group photo.

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At home, opposition politicians joined with the Harper government before the election to give unanimous parliamentary backing to a Canadian military mission, but they are now chiding Mr. Cannon for failing to leave the campaign trail to lead Canada's delegation.

"He should have gone," said the NDP's foreign affairs critic, Paul Dewar.

Convention typically constrains governments' role on the world stage during election campaigns, as they are expected to refrain from making new international commitments, and there are concerns it could over-politicize international relations. But Liberal Bob Rae said he spoke to Mr. Cannon last week and told him there would not be partisan criticism if he attended.

"I had some indication from him that he was actually going to go to the London conference. I don't know what changed since then," Mr. Rae said. "I certainly had no objection to him going."

Mr. Dewar and Mr. Rae said because all parties backed Canada's mission, Mr. Cannon could have gone to London to give weight to the Canadian position and, Mr. Dewar argued, accountability for it.

Instead, Canada was represented by Mr. Rosenberg, the High Commissioner to Britain and the ambassador to NATO - with no ministers or military officers. Former deputy foreign affairs minister Gordon Smith said that's happened before, and civil servants can do the job, though it's rare for a new mission to be gearing up under campaign restrictions: "It's highly unusual."

There is, the government insists, no absence of oversight from the government as the politicians campaign.

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Stephen Harper gets daily briefings on Libya while campaigning, his office said. Mr. Cannon spoke to Mr. Rosenberg about his instructions before he left for the London conference, and Mr. Rosenberg will brief the minister on the outcome.

But while there's virtual silence about Libya on Canada's campaign trail, there is debate among countries about the mission's goal and endgame. Outside of an election, political leaders such as Mr. Harper and Mr. Cannon would be expected to be front and centre outlining Canada's position.

The London conference papered over those differences, rather than resolving them, by concluding that the military mission will protect civilians, though for many the political goal was Col. Gadhafi's ouster.

But some aspects of the mission, such as pre-emptive strikes against the Libyan regime's tanks and weapons, continue to split even NATO allies. A Canadian general, Lieutenant-General Charles Bouchard, is now in command of the NATO mission, and Canadian CF-18s continued to fly sorties, including four that conducted a bombing run against an ammunition depot on Monday.

Lt.-Gen. Bouchard's orders as commander come from NATO headquarters, not from Ottawa. But he must be assigning missions to national contingents according to their different policies on how far their national militaries will go.

They need clarity from political leaders on the mission's goals, noted retired Major-General Lewis Mackenzie, a former Canadian commander of UN forces in the former Yugoslavia. That was not going to come from the 40 foreign ministers in London, he said, but if NATO foreign ministers meet, Mr. Cannon should go, he said.

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About the Author
Chief political writer

Campbell Clark has been a political writer in The Globe and Mail’s Ottawa bureau since 2000. Before that he worked for The Montreal Gazette and the National Post. He writes about Canadian politics and foreign policy. More

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