This coming month, Canada's newly elected MPs will have to vote on whether to extend our participation in the NATO-led aerial campaign in Libya. For many MPs, this vote -- which will occur mere days into their new mandate -- will surely be amongst their most significant. For our newest members of Parliament, it may be the most important act of their lives thus far.
Sending your country to war -- or in this case, participating in and leading a multinational military operation as Canada is doing in the no-fly zone -- is serious business. And while Canada's early entry into the fray may have been an easy sell: with a fresh UN Security Council mandate, with Arab League support, and with the rather virtuous and lofty aim of acting under the moral imperative of saving innocent lives, next month's vote may take on an entirely different hue.
So long as Colonel Muammar Gaddafi shows himself to be alive and well inside Libya's borders, Canada's decision to continue the campaign is a complex one. This complexity stems from a number of emerging factors.
The first is the most obvious: that the mission in Libya is quickly intensifying with military activities pushing the bounds of the UN Security Council's mandate. This week, NATO bombing runs were stepped up, in what many analysts have suggested is a move to break the unexpected stalemate between NATO and Gaddafi forces. Such an escalation in bombing could also be meant to pave the way for the deployment of French and British attack helicopters, as they remain far more vulnerable to ground-based missiles.
As is so often the case, intervention begets more intervention. The introduction of attack helicopters (while tactically potent in their own right), are at their best when complemented by ground troops. This is particularly important in the event that a helicopter is shot down. To be sure, images of the downed Blackhawks in Mogadishu's inhospitable urban quarters are not far from the minds of the campaign's strategists.
A second point of complexity is the elusive and apparently changing aim of the NATO campaign. Indeed, it would appear that the aim of the mission has shifted from that of preventing the Libyan air force from firing on its own citizens to that of removing Gaddafi from power with a view to facilitating regime change. From no-fly zone to nation building is a big leap.
This is made all the more bizarre by the third point: that we are still not entirely sure who the so-called rebels are in Libya. Insofar as we are in the business of "pro"-insurgency in Libya and counterinsurgency in Afghanistan, our link to the apparently well-intentioned Libyan "rebels" remains unconsolidated. Whereas Gaddafi's demise surely presents a superordinate goal around which Libya's various tribes can coalesce, it is overly optimistic to believe that such solidarity will not suffer within the country's inevitable power vacuum.
Alas, much depends on the war's course. How Canada is likely to react will be largely determined by how quickly Gaddafi acquiesces or is otherwise deposed. In the interim, Canada's involvement will be underwritten -- and will surely go forward -- on the basis of our steadfast support for NATO's collective might and on our original objective to save Libyan lives. These are, and will remain, noble pursuits. These are principles our elected MPs, new and old, will surely understand.
Follow Robert Barrett, PhD on Twitter: www.twitter.com/Rob_S_Barrett