by David Bercuson
May 29, 2017
The Liberal promise to re-engage Canadian troops in United Nations peacekeeping ventures seems to have gone the way of most of their defence promises – unfulfilled, delayed or just plain forgotten. And like some of the other Liberal defence promises – such as to rule out any consideration of the F-35 stealth fighter to replace the CF-18 – it was only half thought through in the first place.
In the 2015 federal election, the Liberals fought tooth and nail against the NDP for the left-centre vote in places such as the Greater Toronto Area, Quebec and British Columbia’s lower mainland. Stephen Harper’s government had already withdrawn Canada from Afghanistan – and had begun to levy deep cuts on the national defence budget – but it had thrown Canadian aircraft into the bombing campaign in Libya and committed Canadian fighter jets to the bombing of ISIS targets in Syria.
So, although the Conservatives were not doing much to follow through on major defence promises – such as the national shipbuilding program, the completion of the F-35 purchases and other necessaries – they did have the smell of war about them. Why? Because Harper had made it a point to visit Canadian troops in Kandahar on his first foreign visit, he had proclaimed that Canadians were not going to “cut and run”, and he had augmented the Canadian contingent in Kandahar with helicopters and other additional kit. Those of the public who had supported the military mission in the first place soon largely forgot why we were there, and those who had opposed the mission kept hearkening back to the good old days when “neutral” Canadian peacekeepers had tried to keep the peace in some of the world’s most difficult battlegrounds, instead of making war in Afghanistan and elsewhere.
Forgotten in all this was the crucial role the Liberals had played in the very beginning of the mission. It was then-prime minister Jean Chretien who had first deployed Canadian troops to fight under American command in Kandahar in early 2002 and who sent Canadians back to Kabul to lead ISAF in 2003. And it was again the Liberals, this time under Paul Martin, who committed Canadians to Kandahar in late 2005.
It was also former Liberal deputy leader John Manley who led a panel in 2008 that called on the Conservative government to stay in Kandahar, though with a number of important conditions, such as the procurement of helicopters and the addition of at least 1,000 troops from other NATO countries to help the Canadians in their mission.
But the Liberals began to play politics with the Kandahar mission as early as 2006 when, in the midst of the leadership race to replace Martin, many of the front bench decided to vote against the Tory motion to extend the Afghan mission. And bi-partisanship over Afghanistan broke down right there.
The NDP was never unequivocal about the mission: they were against it from the beginning and they and their supporters in the press, in academia, and in the left-wing intellectual elite of the country attacked not only Canada’s participation in the mission, but called time and again for Canada to return to good old Lester Pearson-style peacekeeping. They decried the “militarization” of Canada under the Tories and the creation of the myth of Canada as a fighting nation, rather than a nation which always stood for keeping the peace.
Thus the Liberals in 2015 had to “out-peace keep” the NDP and promise Canadians that the bad old days of Canada actually fighting in a war were going to end under a Trudeau government. Canada would withdraw from the air mission in Syria and would once again put its troops in blue helmets, just as they had been from the 1950s to the 1990s.
The only problem was – as they discovered after they had assumed office – that there simply aren’t any “neutral” peacekeeping missions out there anymore. Those soldiers engaged in blue-helmet operations were, in many cases, fighting as hard for their lives as the Canadians had done in Afghanistan.
As of this moment (end of May), the Liberals haven’t found their idyllic peacekeeping mission, and they probably won’t. The world is much different today than it was in the 1950s or 1960s and many of the blue-helmet troops out there – not all, but many – are there to earn hard currency for their national treasuries. Seeking out another war – this time wearing blue helmets – would finally shatter the peacekeeping legend in Canada once and for all. That would not serve the Liberal legend well in the next campaign in 2019.
David Bercuson is Research Director of the Canadian Global Affairs Institute.