Foreign minister-in-waiting

Rae’s international know-how puts him ahead of the pack

Foreign minister-in-waitingThe last time Bob Rae saw him, Lakshman Kadirgamar was in a dark mood. They were talking in the Sri Lankan foreign minister’s office in Colombo. The former Ontario premier had been visiting Sri Lanka’s capital regularly for a few years, on occasion even venturing out to backwoods bases of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, trying to help the island nation talk its way out of a cycle of vicious civil war. “You people,” Rae recalls Kadirgamar saying, meaning Westerners, “you really don’t understand what it’s like and what we’re up against. I know that I could be shot dead any time, even getting out of my swimming pool.”

A few months later, on the evening of Aug. 12, 2005, a LTTE sniper killed Kadirgamar as he climbed out of his pool, just as he had foretold. Rae was back in Toronto when he heard the chilling news. This was not the first time one of his Sri Lankan contacts had been assassinated by the Tigers. Yet earlier this month, Rae was blocked from entering Sri Lanka on the grounds that he was a Tiger supporter, a charge he of course denied. Detained at Colombo’s airport, he was put on a plane to Britain after 12 fruitless hours arguing with security officials.

Most Canadians hearing the news must have been mystified. Why would Sri Lanka’s government care one way or the other about Bob Rae? But in an odd way, Rae’s expulsion draws attention to the international seasoning he gained after his 1990-1995 term as Ontario’s NDP premier and before his return to politics as a Liberal in 2006. And that period is potentially of great interest, given Rae’s possible next career move. As Ignatieff’s foreign affairs critic, he’s widely viewed in Ottawa circles as a sort of foreign minister-in-waiting. He laughs off a question about whether he’s already got a lock on the prestigious post, should the Liberals win the next election. “Let’s just say,” he allows, “that I’m enjoying this job and I hope it leads to others.”

As foreign minister, Rae would bring first-hand background in a global hot-spot —unusual for a politician from Canada. Before his Ontario government was defeated in 1995, he was immersed in federalist theory as a key player in the failed Meech Lake and Charlottetown bids for constitutional reform. After his defeat, then-prime minister Jean Chrétien and Stéphane Dion, his intergovernmental affairs minister, recruited Rae to chair the Forum of Federations, a think tank they created to advocate for federalist forms of government.

Sri Lankan politicians approached the forum early on, searching for a federalist fix for their strife. The idea was to persuade ethnic Tamil separatists to accept partial self-determination within a united but federal Sri Lanka. After a ceasefire was signed in 2002, Rae and other forum officials began meeting frequently with both sides. He’s now writing a foreign policy book drawing heavily on that experience, which he says reinforced his view of Canada as a “natural peacemaker and peacekeeper.”

In hindsight, though, he doubts a peaceful solution for Sri Lanka was ever within reach. “The Tigers,” Rae says, “were never going to change their tactics, and their tactics were grotesque.” One tactic: assassination of moderate Tamils, like Kadirgamar and Rae’s friend Kethesh Loganathan, a peace negotiator killed in 2006. Working with University of Toronto political science professor David Cameron, Rae quietly helped other Tamil moderates, whose lives were in grave jeopardy, flee to safety in Toronto. During the final assault that crushed the Tigers this spring, he pleaded for Sri Lanka’s army to spare Tamil civilians—probably the real reason he was blocked from entering Sri Lanka.

While Rae was being held in Colombo’s airport, back in Ottawa, Ignatieff and Prime Minister Stephen Harper were engaged in the tactical dance that brought the parliamentary session to an end. Rae is not the only big-name Liberal whose political persona sometimes seems to come into focus away from Parliament Hill. Ken Dryden has been on a speaking tour of campuses, talking up his vision of Canada. Martha Hall Findlay is trying to make a mark connecting to youth through online social networking.

As for Rae, he feels his Sri Lankan phase is over. If he became foreign minister, though, it might suddenly look more relevant than, say, an uneven run as premier or a couple of thwarted tries for the Liberal leadership.

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