07/04/2011 10:37 EDT | Updated 09/03/2011 05:12 EDT

John Baird's Trip To Libya Signals Turning Point, Links Military And Foreign Policy


THE CANADIAN PRESS -- John Baird stepped off a stomach-churning, ear-splitting military flight from Libya, straightened his suit and walked briskly across the sun-blazed Sicilian tarmac.

He went directly to address the Canadian troops on a break from their part in the NATO-led bombing campaign, taking their questions without censor, and replying with considered opinions.

"We've got to be patient. We are making progress," the newly-named foreign affairs minister told about 100 camouflage-clad men and women last week, shouting to be heard over the CF-18s soaring overhead.

The frank exchange was more than a simple duty filled by a federal minister travelling through a military base. It tied together Canada's foreign policy and military policy -- a link that has been left untended for far too long, critics say.

"I think it's important for Canada that we more and more match what our military effort is, with the work that we need to do politically and diplomatically," said Liberal Leader Bob Rae, who has a long history of observing Middle Eastern politics.

"Frankly, I think they're beginning to feel their way," he said.

The quick yet physically gruelling trip to Libya was Baird's first diplomatic foray beyond the summit circuit, and a signal that Canada's new foreign minister plans to shake things up.

His main message: Canada's engagement in Libya is not just about bombing the Moammar Gadhafi forces in the hopes that something better will replace his harsh dictatorship of more than four decades.

Rather, it's also about using diplomatic channels to promote human rights and democracy, support women, and discourage the use of rape as a weapon.

And by showing up in person -- despite the bombing campaign -- to deliver that message to rebel leaders at their cramped headquarters in Benghazi, Baird is already putting his personal stamp on a foreign policy that will undoubtedly be more engaged than under previous Harper ministers, his critics agree.

"My sense, because I know John a bit, is that he'll want to be doing something that is seen as unique and ... substantive," said NDP foreign affairs critic Paul Dewar, who represents the Ottawa riding adjacent to Baird's.

Baird is just 42 -- younger than Gadhafi's dictatorship, he noted -- but he is a political veteran with Conservative experience that stretches back to the days of Ontario premier Mike Harris and prime minister Brian Mulroney, when he was a political staffer.

He is credited by his Conservative peers for successfully pulling off the spending of billions of stimulus dollars, approving thousands of projects quickly and in a way that was politically expedient.

In public, he has handily developed a persona as a pit bull, never passing up an opportunity to shred any opponent of the Harper administration. In private, he has won the respect of his political foes with his energy and willingness to meet them as equals.

But no one knew which John Baird would be at the forefront when he was named Canada's foreign affairs minister after the May federal election.

The three-day trip through Rome to Libya and back through Sicily provided a glimpse into the answer. Not only was it a bombast-free expedition, it was also clearly humbling for the minister, one of the few people the prime minister trusts and turns to for counsel.

"I was just struck by their courage, their determination. They put themselves and their families at risk in this battle for freedom, and it was quite impressive," Baird said in an interview after meeting with the rebels' National Transitional Council.

"I asked, 'did anyone know anyone who had died,' and just about every person around the table had lost a cousin, a brother, a next-door neighbour, a friend. I was really struck by that."

But the trip to Libya, while bold, was just a half-day event that won't change much of anything unless Baird follows up with concrete measures, his critics say.

Canada was late to send representation to Benghazi, following after several other countries involved in the NATO bombing campaign. Plus, Canada's reputation in the region is mixed -- known as a staunch pro-Israel supporter with only reluctant respect for the Arab Spring wave of democracy.

The rebels' council wants more than just NATO firepower, Baird recognizes. It wants money, and more international respect.

So Ottawa needs to decide whether to send a more permanent representative to set up shop officially in Benghazi, Baird said. And it needs to find ways to free up frozen Libyan assets so that the NTC can at least borrow against the funds to get the Libyan economy moving.

From a Canadian foreign policy point of view, Baird also needs to follow up with concrete actions showing that Ottawa is indeed intent on matching its military moves with diplomacy and foreign policy, say Rae and Dewar.

Rae wants to see the Conservatives put the same human-rights emphasis in Afghanistan and Pakistan, saying that if Baird is serious about bolstering Canada's foreign voice, he'll make Libya-style trips to those countries soon.

And Dewar wants to see Canada continue to speak up about democracy in the Middle East, starting with a key meeting of allies in Turkey this month.

"If there's no follow up to that, then the three-day trip will have been just a glad-hand," Dewar said.

While Baird may hope to pilot a foreign policy that is at the same time post-partisan and puts Canada on a stronger footing in international circles, he still has a long way to go, they say.

"I'm hoping that we'll begin to see a quiet change over there," Rae said of Canada's policy on the Middle East.

"Mr. Baird doesn't have a standby mode on his gear shift. It's important to have someone who is moving and thinking all the time .... So I think this will be a great opportunity for him and for the country."