Retired Canadian general on consulate attack in Libya

09/21/2012 09:16 EDT | Updated 11/21/2012 05:12 EST
The retired Canadian Forces general who commanded the NATO mission in Libya says the deadly attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi was both an act of terrorism — and a sign of a struggling new democracy.

In an exclusive interview with Power & Politics guest host Hannah Thibedeau, retired lieutenant-general Charles Bouchard said the attack is not a reflection that the NATO campaign ended too early. The fledgling central government faces tremendous security challenges posed by young demonstrators and terrorists and is not yet capable of controlling the threat, he said.

“I think all indications point towards that this was a terrorist action taking place, but it’s also indicative of a government that has not found its full control yet,” Bouchard said in his first interview since the Sept. 11 attack that killed U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other diplomatic staff. “We just had a recent election, a new prime minister has been appointed, and he faces many, many challenges.”

Today, the White House for the first time also labelled the attack on the U.S. consulate a “terrorist attack,” but did not backtrack on its earlier claim it was a spontaneous reaction to an anti-Islam video that spawned a protest against the U.S Embassy in Cairo. Demonstrations have escalated in intensity and scope, spreading across the Middle East and North African region.

Bouchard, who will receive the Order of Canada on Sept. 28, said the NATO military mission was specifically tasked with protecting the population against the brutal dictatorship of Moammar Gadhafi. Now Libya needs sweeping reforms — in terms of judicial, electoral, education, military and internal security — but those are best handled under the broader umbrella of the United Nations, Arab League or African Union, he said.

Recalling the moment when he first learned Gadhafi was killed on Oct. 20, 2011, Bouchard said he was deeply saddened by the reaction of some Libyans.

“I was saddened because I saw a behaviour of the people, which was really why they rebelled against the regime in the first place, and now in many ways they were behaving the same way. And it saddened me to see that,” he said. “Was I surprised? Well after 42 years of repression these are people and a culture which is very proud, a culture which looks at revenge differently than we westerners.”

Gadhafi was beaten and abused – and may have been sodomized – by his captors and killers. Bouchard said he would have preferred that Gadhafi face proper justice either in a Libyan or international court.

As for what lies ahead in the region reeling in unrest, Bouchard expressed doubt NATO would directly support Israel if it were to strike Iran. And he warned that such an act could further destabilize the region.

“A pre-emptive strike by the state of Israel, which is a sovereign decision in and of itself, may very well precipitate a very violent reaction against Israel and cause more instability,” he said. “When one looks at an action, one should always look at what are the secondary or tertiary effects ... are you going to worsen the situation or solve a problem?”

On Syria, Bouchard said he hopes Russian President Vladamir Putin will eventually seize an international opportunity to take an active role in brokering a transition to peace. But a number of factors make the Syrian crisis even more challenging than the Libyan one. There is NATO fatigue, an international financial crisis and a tougher geopolitical reality; and while Gadhafi had few remaining friends, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad retains powerful allies.

“It very complex and it’s not one but a combination of all of these factors,” Bouchard said. “At the end of the day, we have to ask ourselves the question – will the solution that we bring improve the situation or only worsen it for the people and the world.”

Bouchard also responded to a CBC News story about the $11.5-million accommodation costs incurred by the Canadian Forces during the Libyan campaign. He said soldiers were set up in “sparse” lodging in four locations in Italy, and that setting up and dismantling a base camp – and taking in all associated support costs – could have racked up an even higher bill.