Go to the Globe and Mail homepage

Jump to main navigationJump to main content

His next move: In this image taken from a video on June 12, provided by FIDE President Kirsan Ilyumzhinov's press service, Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi is about to play chess. (AP)
His next move: In this image taken from a video on June 12, provided by FIDE President Kirsan Ilyumzhinov's press service, Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi is about to play chess. (AP)

Jeffrey Simpson

Canada went into Libya with lofty ideals and little knowledge Add to ...

As so often happens in war, what began as a campaign with an initial, limited objective has escalated to something larger that takes longer to achieve and at greater cost.

Countries such as Canada that entered the Libyan civil war to defend civilians from dictator Moammar Gadhafi, without any stated intention to replace him, now insist that only his removal will suffice. What started therefore as a humanitarian mission now is clearly a political one, backed by daily pounding from NATO bombs, and intelligence agents on the ground: regime change.

But regime change to what? Libya is a country of sorts, an authoritarian state overlaying a multiplicity of tribes, some of which are loyal to Colonel Gadhafi, others fiercely hostile to him. If NATO succeeds in dislodging him, no one knows what kind of arrangements might arise to hold these tribes together. Put another way, it has not been easy to remove Col. Gadhafi from power - the new NATO objective - but when that removal occurs, putting durable government arrangements together in his stead might be more onerous still.

This reality, of course, seemed to dawn on NATO, and on the Canadian government, long after the decision was taken to intervene. In Canada's case, after all, we knew next-to-nothing about the complexities of Libya, and so, as with our entry into Afghanistan almost a decade ago, began military action with lofty ideals but scant actual knowledge. Our pilots began flying bombing missions, so that figuratively and literally speaking, our representatives in uniform were observing Libya from the air without knowing much about the peoples and societies down below.

When, therefore, the House of Commons got around to debating the Libyan campaign, as it did Tuesday, the level of even elementary understanding of the country that our planes are bombing could politely be described as limited, but more accurately described as non-existent.

Canada went along principally because our traditional allies felt something should be done to stop Col. Gadhafi from killing some of his opponents, perhaps on a mass scale, in the eastern part of the country. The British and French seemed keenest on this humanitarian objective, whereas the Americans were initially cool, perhaps because they were already engaged militarily in two other Muslim countries, and also perhaps because the now-villainous Col. Gadhafi has been a valuable ally in the "war on terror."

That the U.S. government is also broke occurred to a few Americans, too. Predictably, the Americans are doing much of the heavy lifting in the campaign, and are none too happy about some of their NATO allies doing little or nothing, starting with Germany.

The Germans wanted no part of this NATO mission sanctioned by the United Nations. Having campaigned very successfully for a seat on the Security Council (beating Canada handily), Germany promptly took a pass on the first UN-authorized military mission, a rather ignominious beginning for a country that wants a permanent Security Council seat.

In bombing Tripoli extensively, NATO is obviously hoping that Col. Gadhafi will either be killed or forced into exile. NATO's friends, if that is the word, would seem to be all those who oppose him: tribes in eastern Libya and secularists, Western-oriented businessmen and former Guantanamo inmates, loosely grouped in something called the National Council, who seem to have more in common about what they oppose than what to build post-Gadhafi.

It is all very well, as some MPs argued yesterday, for Canada and the NATO countries to send aid to Libya once Col. Gadhafi is removed, but we have seen repeatedly that such aid commitments - be it for AIDS, Afghanistan or climate change - fall far short of early pledges. And apart from the very likely shortfall of actual aid, whatever money is offered will be far less consequential than whether the tribes of Libya can manufacture some consensus post-Gadhafi.

Unlike Iraq and Afghanistan, there is no appetite to keep sizable military forces on the ground in Libya to provide stability during regime change. Therefore, we have unleashed air power that eventually, one presumes, will replace the existing regime with another, without any idea of what will come next, and no willingness to help shape it.

Report Typo/Error

Follow us on Twitter: @GlobeDebate

Next story




Most popular videos »

More from The Globe and Mail

Most popular