01/17/2013 08:06 EST | Updated 03/19/2013 05:12 EDT

Media Bites: Are We Heroes, Or Was Mali Just On the Way?

This photo provided by the ECPAD/French Army shows French soldiers carrying ammunition at Bamako airport, Tuesday, Jan.15, 2013. Islamists in Mali on Wednesday prevented residents from leaving the towns they are holding, and some fear they will be used as human targets by the extremists as French troops pressed forward to launch direct combat within hours. (AP Photo/Jeremy Lempin, ECPAD, EMA)

If you like your tales of Canadian do-gooding to be humble and cutesy, I imagine you'll be charmed to learn that the primary reason why our air force intervened in Mali this week was because we were already in the neighbourhood.

See, Canadian special forces had been hanging in northwest Africa since early January, training Nigerese soldiers as part of Exercise Flintlock, a rotating, U.S.-led initiative to provide military assistance to fledgling regimes in that troubled part of the world.

The French, meanwhile, were busily bombing Islamist rebels in next-door Mali as part of a UN-backed mission to bring about peace and stability yadda yadda. Despite the killings, the whole thing has actually proven quite popular with the Mali folk, who have grown tired of being terrorized and killed by Al Qaeda-backed fanatics (go figure).

Anyway, the Frenchies were getting stretched a bit thin, so on Monday they picked up the phone and politely noted that since we Canucks were already so close and all, maybe we could be lending ze spare jet, no?

Aw shucks, if you really think it would help, replied Canada.

Though the totality of our French collaboration in the Mali affair will be a single week of logistical, non-combat support, this still marks Canada's biggest military intervention in a foreign warzone since the Libya unpleasantness of 2011.


Captions courtesy of the Associated Press.

A Closer Look At Mali

So are we, as a nation, cool with this? You better believe our buds in the Canadian press have a lot to say!

Actually, "a lot" might be pushing it. Even after a bunch of idiot-proof CBC FAQs and arrow-filled National Post infographics, the Mali situation remains one of those stories whose central subject is so dense and obscure it takes about six paragraphs just to provide a bare minimum of context (ie: Where is this place? Who runs the government? Who are the rebels? Are we supposed to call them "Malimites" or "Malimars?" etc), leaving scant space for analysis (ie: Why should I care?). Luckily, the overwhelming punditsphere response has been so passively supportive of our government's exceedingly modest French-boosting, a couple sentences is really all anyone needs.

Fine, good, whatever, says the Globe and Mail editorial board it's "hard to imagine reasonable objections," to loaning a single airplane "to aid a close ally with closely allied interests in preventing the spread of a virulent and cruel strain of Islamism." No duh, agrees the gang at the Toronto Star, the "world has an interest in not seeing Mali collapse into an Afghan-style haven for Al Qaeda and other extremists," and if that requires a bit of Canadian "help from the margins," I guess it wouldn't kill us to spare a C-17 or two.

Everyone also agrees, however, that the least Canada can do should also be the most Canada will do. No one's in the mood for another decade-long round of nation-building, writes Michael Petrou in Maclean's, and absent the Malimar rebels setting off any "bombs in Toronto or Washington," excuse us if we'll be "keeping our distance" from the internal chaos of some third-world hellhole whose previously best-informed Canadian constituency was children with flags-of-the-world sticker books.

We're busy enough fighting our own war back in Canada, anyway. Sure, it might not be a Mali-style civil war where hundreds of thousands have been forced from their homes due to all the hand-choppings and rapes and whatnot ("run-of-the-mill barbarism," as the Globe board dubs it). More of a war on unsustainable government expenditures. But it's still pretty intense! I mean, have you seen our military budget lately?

The Prime Minister certainly has. And Harper's Canada, writes Jon Ibbitson in the Globe, is a nation "hoping to knock down its deficit in part by curtailing military spending," which is bad news for an unwinable African tribal conflict which pretty much has bottomless money-hole written all over it. Harp's basically gone from bomb-happy neo-con to "reluctant warrior," approvingly nods Thomas Walkom in the Star.

As any young undergrad can attest, receiving even the most rudimentary education in Canadian politics now invariably includes a mandatory slog through some pompous study of "Canadian Foreign Policy" -- an academic field, its insecure scholars insist, possessing just as much intellectual substance and coherence, as say, subtraction.

We Canadians are "honest brokers" who "punch above our weight" and believe in the "responsibility to protect" and all the rest of it, they say. Take a close look at everything this country's done around and for the world lo' these last decades and you'll see an inspiring bundle of consistently moral actions bound by a beautiful ribbon of elegant principle.

Once you're out of school and begin to watch the headlines, however, it becomes harder to ignore the decidedly inelegant possibly that Canadian foreign policy is actually governed by much of the same lazy logic as the rest of Canadian life -- namely, we'll do whatever's cheap, fast, popular, and easy, and -- if time and cost permits -- right.

Especially if it's already on the way.