The Commons: Getting the words right

Should we make Gadhafi go? Apparently no. Or at least not quite.

So the House is almost entirely agreed. Colonel Gadhafi of Libya is an undesirable despot, guilty, it would seem, of various abuses and disgraces, likely up to and including crimes against humanity and thus, through some combination of diplomacy, humanitarian aid and bombs, he must be prevented from doing any further harm to the people of Libya, they who should be allowed to proceed soon enough to freedom and democracy.

Now, if only the House could agree on how best to describe the process by which this general notion might be made real.

“Our strategy is clear,” John Baird proclaimed this morning. “By applying steady and unrelenting military and diplomatic pressure while also delivering humanitarian assistance we can protect the civilian population, degrade the capabilities of the regime and create the conditions for a genuine political opening. At the same time we can bolster the capacity of the Libyan opposition to meet the challenges of post-Gadhafi Libya and to lay the foundations of a state based on the sovereignty of the people.”

On this, the Foreign Affairs Minister asked the House of Commons to endorse a three-and-a-half-month extension of Canada’s involvement in the NATO mission over and around Libya. And it was on the occasion of this request that Jack Harris, the NDP’s shadow defence minister, stood a short while later to wonder if we might call this “regime change.”

Reading from a recent edition of The Globe and Mail, Mr. Harris noted that Lieutenant-General Charles Bouchard, the Canadian now leading NATO’s effort, had recently said that “regime change” was not his “job.” “Would the minister confirm that is in fact a correct position,” Mr. Harris asked, “and that is not the role of the military mission in Libya?”

For sure, the Minister would confirm as much, even as he explained why precisely a change in regimes was necessary. “It goes without saying that at the political level, apart from military issues, all G8 leaders and most actors in the world believe Colonel Gadhafi must go,” Mr. Baird said. “There is a significant and real concern that as long as he holds political power in Libya, a vulnerable population, those seeking the rule of law, those seeking human rights, those seeking freedom and democracy will be at risk.”

So if he must go, can we make him go? Should we make him go? Apparently no. Or at least not quite.

After the NDP’s Paul Dewar had finished with his speech, Conservative Deepak Obhrai, Mr. Baird’s parliamentary secretary, stood to return Mr. Harris’ favour. “I have a simple question,” he said, perhaps debatably. “The member for St. John’s East asked the minister about a regime change … The minister made it very clear that the military operation is not about a regime change. However, I think it needs to be made very clear. I would like to know the NDP’s position on this situation. As long as Mr. Gadhafi stays in power, how can we expect him to bring peace to that country? How can we expect him to not target his people as per the mandate that we have received from the UN?”

Mr. Dewar returned here to the comment of Lieutenant-General Bouchard to which Mr. Baird had earlier indicated his agreement. “It could not be more clear,” Mr. Dewar said, perhaps debatably, “that the job of our House, the government and Canada is not to decide on the regime, but it is to make sure that we protect civilians.”

Shortly after noon, Liberal Kevin Lamoureux rounded on Veterans Affairs Minister Steven Blaney. “Mr. Speaker, in his comments, the member indicated without any hesitation that Colonel Gadhafi must leave,” Lamoureux recounted. “My question for the government is, do the current mission objectives include removal of Colonel Gadhafi from power? Is it crystal clear on that particular point?”

When Mr. Blaney failed to be perfectly crystal clear in response, Mr. Obhrai apparently felt compelled to answer Mr. Lamoureux’s question. “I would like to make it very clear to the Liberal member who asked whether we were committed to a regime change that the military mission is not part of a regime change,” he explained. “The political dimensions require that Mr. Gadhafi go, but that does not mean that we are looking for a military regime change. That is not the military objective.”

When it came time for Mr. Harris to make his speech, he returned to the words of Lieutenant-General Bouchard. The first objective, Mr. Harris figured, was a ceasefire. “We would think,” he said that any “post-conflict regime or situation” would not include Col. Gadhafi. This, he suggested, was “a given.” “If the people of Libya had a choice, I think that is where they would be,” he said. “However, we want to see this as a Libyan-led solution and not one that is affected by military action under the responsibility to protect.”

After he’d finished, Chris Alexander, parliamentary secretary to the Defence Minister and an experienced diplomat, stood to assure his counterpart that “the very precise language he has used regarding objectives on the basis of UN resolutions and other multilateral sources of authority for our operations in Libya coheres with the policy and the understanding of this government of what the objectives are.”

Here though, Mr. Lamoureux squared on Mr. Harris. “Does the member think there are any circumstances where he could envision Col. Gadhafi retaining any power whatsoever in a new Libya?” he asked.

The NDP defence critic dismissed the question entirely.

“The question is based on a false premise,” he said, “which is that we here in Canada, we in the Canadian government, should decide who should participate in any government of Libya. That is for the Libyan people to decide. That is why our motion talks about a Libyan-led solution to the crisis and to the future of government in Libya. I guess that is the simplest way to put it.”

Simplest perhaps, but not quite simple.

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