Room remains for Canada to act as an intermediary... But it is slim
As a world leader, there is no question that one has a lot less control over world events than they would like. Often, crises can develop quite quickly, with few if any warning signs, or can start as something smaller, then escalate out of control.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper has certainly learned this the hard way over the past two weeks, as what began essentially as a hostage situation, boiling over a period of months, exploded into a full-blown war between Israel and Hezbollah this week. There is no doubt that Harper has learned many hard lessons in the days since.
Despite criticism regarding command-and-control from the Prime Minister's Office hampering efforts, the evacuation of Canadian citizens from Lebanon proceeded fairly efficiently. Even the Prime Minister himself lent a hand, as he diverted his Airbus flight home from France to Turkey in order to pick up a planeload of evacuees. Many evacuees complained about poor conditions on board the ships chartered to bring them to safety, while others complained about lax treatment by officials at the Canadian consulate in Cyprus. On top of all this, the operation was far from perfect, as a Canadian family of eight from Montreal was confirmed dead in an Israeli airstrike. There was also a report of an Israeli aircraft opening fire on a ship bearing Canadian refugees (however, the small explosion was ultimately traced to a faulty fire extinguisher).
Considering that this was the largest civilian evacuation in Canadian history, the operation went as well as could be hoped.
But Harper learned one other harsh lesson this week: as he has little control over international crises, he also has very little control over the public perception of his response.
When conflict began in earnest, Harper responded quickly by calling the Israeli actions a "measured response" to the actions of Hezbollah, who were not only holding two captured Israeli soldiers, but were also launching rocket attacks into Israel from southern Lebanon.
While whether or not the Israeli military expidition can be considered a "measured response" (especially in the face of many civilian casualties) is entirely open for debate, these key facts of the issue really are not. Which may be what made the criticism that quickly followed all the more absurd.
Liberal Party interim leader Bill Graham complained about Harper's lack of initiative as a peacemaker. "Canada has always been able to serve as an intermediary," he explained, "but we can only serve in that useful role if in both our comportment and our actions we take steps and stances which enable us to play that role."
Graham didn't deny that Israel has the right to defend itself.
Deputy Prime Minister and current Foreign Affairs Minister Peter MacKay responded fairly simply: "A ceasefire and return to the status quo is a victory for Hezbollah," MacKay told CTV's Canada AM. "Let's not forget that this was an unprovoked attack by a terrorist organiztion. Missiles were being fired into Israel."
Harper was also accused of "parroting" the American position on Israel. "He's almost at the forefront of a very small group of nations who say whatever Israel does is right," said Axworthy. "We're becoming part of the problem, not part of the solution."
However, as a former Minister of Foreign Affairs, Axeworthy knows full well that support is Israel is a traditional tenet of Canadian foreign policy. In 1997, Axworthy himself closed an investigation on wether or not Israeli intelligence operatives were using Canadian passports (although Axworthy did offer Israel his fair share of criticism).
In the end, MacKay argued that Harper's stance actually served the interests of establishing long-term peace. " The Prime Minister has taken a very independent sovereign decision to participate in world events in a way that we feel is cognizant of all the circumstances including the history and the ongoing struggles in the region," he noted. " It is very much in keeping with an effort to find a long-term peaceful solution, not one that is going to be just a quick fix."
He also insisted that no peace will ultimately come of a unilateral Israeli withdrawal.
Many pro-peace activists also took to treating Harper's stance in a manner comparable to that given to U.S. President George Bush. On Saturday, in protests in Montreal and Toronto, anti-war activists carried banners of Harper emblazoned with the words "war monger" -- despite the absence of Canadian troops in the war zone.
Ultimately, the trouble with the debate on this crises is that each side seems to enjoy ignoring the key facts that make the issue so complex. Bill Graham, Lloyd Axworthy and (portions of) the Liberal party seem to subscribe to some sort of bizarre belief that peace talks are practical in an environment where a terrorist organization is launching continuous rocket attacks against a soveriegn country. Many of the most extreme anti-war groups are ignoring the matter of these attacks althogether.
Yet it seems that the Conservative party is largely ignoring the issue of civilian casualties -- even after the deaths of Canadians in the crosshairs. Not to mention claiming that Israel's actions serve the interest of long-term peace, when the Israeli Defense Force's actions will almost certainly spawn the next generation of Hezbollah members.
There certainly do need to be peace talks -- there is no question about that. But Hezbollah has already proven itself to be a terrorist organization with absolutely no interest in peacefully coexisting with Israel. As such, any such peace talks would have to take place exclusively between Israel and Lebanon. As part of the price for peace, Lebanon will have to agree to work together with Israel do deal with Hezbollah once and for all.
This is where Stephen Harper comes in. If he has left himself any room to function as an intermediary (as the Liberals so desire), it would be under such a framework. Similarily, the Liberals will also have to recognize that Hezbollah is a terrorist organization, and will need to be treated as such.
However, before he can even begin to do so, Harper will have to learn the lessons this crises is teaching him -- and learn them quickly.