What Canada can do about Libya

Canada's role used to be to stall for time and then say ‘me too'

What Canada can do about Libya

Max Rossi/Reuters

The West supplements a shaky knowledge of the Middle East’s history with a determination to forget its own. There’s a reason why Moammar Gadhafi turns up next to so many Western leaders—Tony Blair, Jacques Chirac, Paul Martin, Nicolas Sarkozy, Portugal’s José Socrates—in photographs from a few years ago. The insane Libyan was the poster boy for a certain model of international relations. Now is a good time to understand that model, why it is dying, and what countries like Canada can do next.

In October 2001, a month after the terrorist attacks on Washington and Lower Manhattan, Pentagon adviser Richard Perle sat down with Linda Frum for an interview that was published in the National Post. “After we have destroyed the Taliban,” he said, “the message to the Syrians, the Iraqis, the Iranians, the Yemenis, the Sudanese and others should simply be, ‘You’re next.’ It may be necessary to destroy two of these regimes before the others understand that we’re serious.”

This was the dominant model for Western relations with the Middle East and North Africa after 9/11. The United States, in concert with willing allies, would go around the region shooting until dictators started to get in line. I don’t want to make too much fun of the notion. There was urgent peril. Soon London and Madrid were attacked too. There didn’t seem to be a lot of alternatives. But once the Americans had destroyed two nasty regimes, in Afghanistan and Iraq, it became urgent to start collecting trophies, however tarnished.

Enter Gadhafi. In 2003, he announced he was abandoning his weapons of mass destruction and long-range missile programs. Hallelujah. Condoleezza Rice called Libya “an important model.” Tony Blair and the gang started lining up for photo ops.

There were limits to how much lipstick they could put on this pig. Life in Libya was still hell for its people. But the shoot-and-take-names strategy was about cementing regional stability, not promoting human dignity. “In citing Gadhafi as a model, Rice has signalled the administration’s priority for security over the cause of freedom,” Time magazine pointed out. But again, to the democratic leaders lining up to shake Gadhafi’s hand, there must have seemed no alternative.

Then, two months ago, on Dec. 17, a fed-up Tunisian street vendor named Mohammed Bouazizi set himself on fire. A new model for change in North Africa, quite undreamt-of by the alumni club of the Pentagon Defense Policy Board, was born. The Tunisian regime was its first victim. Hosni Mubarak in Egypt was its next. More thugs will follow them into oblivion.

What’s important to realize is that the old model—a string of sullen and hopeless but relatively quiet dictatorships—is already gone forever. Nobody can bring that cold peace back. What comes next could look a lot like Somalia: chaos, sectarian violence, terrorism bred in anarchy. Or it could look better.

Isn’t it obvious that the West has a vital security interest in making sure the future looks better and not worse?

The crucial transition is still Egypt’s. Its population is 13 times Libya’s, 2½ times Canada’s. If it doesn’t lead the Arab world toward democracy it will lead it the other way. Its transition is shaky. The military council has announced a constitutional referendum and free elections. But relics of the Mubarak years remain in cabinet. An advisory panel will recommend only amendments to Mubarak’s constitution, not an all-new document. The army still controls much of the economy. Reform requires an informed and patient population, but poverty will make reform painful and illiteracy will make it hard to explain.

To say Egyptians will decide their future does not mean Canadians and others should hold our tongues. Canadians helped draft South Africa’s post-apartheid constitution. Western NGOs and academics like Jeffrey Sachs were crucial in cementing Eastern Europe’s transition to democracy and free markets. Democrats never mind offers of help from democrats.

The Canadian Bar Association, or law deans of prominent Canadian universities, should analyze and publicly comment on the quality of the proposed Egyptian constitutional amendments. The Harper government should offer to loan experts from the public service now, and coordinate such offers with the G20 soon. Military assistance, mostly Washington’s, must depend on continued reform and peace with Israel and other neighbours. Civilian development assistance should flow under the same conditions. If it helps, the money spent will be a bargain.

Stephen Harper has made none of these moves. He bases his Middle Eastern policy on stale one-dimensional guesses about what might be good for Israel. Fair enough: a string of failed democratic transitions across North Africa would be really bad for Israel. Not long after, it would be really bad for Canada. It is easy to spot the big historical moments in hindsight. Harder to spot and seize them while they’re happening. Canada’s role has often been to stall for time and then say, “Me too.” Harper used to mock Liberals for acting that way. Today he is outdoing them.

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