Monday, June 20, 2011

May Right on Libya; NDP Fails Canadians Concerned About Civilian Casualties

“I deeply desire the removal of Colonel Gadhafi, but not by military means in what appears to be a civil war in which Canada has taken sides.” – Elizabeth May, Member of Parliament for Saanich-Gulf Islands, in a speech to Parliament, June 14 2011.

“…there is no greater way to strengthen the resolve of a civilian people than aerial bombardment.” – Elizabeth May, Member of Parliament for Saanich-Gulf Islands, in a speech to Parliament, June 14 2011.

Something must be very wrong in the world when Elizabeth May and Peter Worthington find themselves on the same side of an issue. Last week, during the so-called debate in the House of Commons, regarding extending the Canadian NATO-led mission in Libya, every one of our elected members of parliament voted in favour of extension, except for Green Party leader Elizabeth May. The text of her speech to the House shows that she did not arrive at this point simply to gain media exposure, as some have suggested. Instead, it’s clear that May’s position on Libya is principled, courageous and based on the values of the Green Party.

This morning, upon opening my copy of the Sudbury Star, what should surprise my eyes but an editorial written by ultra-right-wing Sun Media pundit, Peter Worthington, whose columns I generally skip because they make me feel sick. This one, though, “Air strikes on Libya must stop”, clearly caught me off-guard. Why is Worthington against continuing the war in Libya? Turns out he’s mostly uncomfortable with who these “rebels” are that NATO is supporting. Which is a valid concern.

I’d have thought that some of this might have been discussed in Ottawa during a “debate”, especially since the floor was opened up last week to do so. It was no surprise to me that the Liberals and Conservatives were on-side with carrying the mission forward, even after acknowledging that there have been subtle changes in the way that the mission is now being sold. At the time that United Nations Resolution 1973 was passed (thanks to Russia and China abstaining), the Canadian public was told that our armed forces would be involved in the time-limited protection of Libyan rebels, through NATO air support.

Remember back then, it looked for sure that the rebel stronghold of Benghazi was about to fall, and with it, the dreams of a Ghadafi-free Libya. As soon as NATO bombs started to fall, though, the momentum began to shift again, and forces loyal to Ghadafi were put on the defensive. As in World War II, fighting went back and forth along the narrow coastal strip between Tripoli and Benghazi, with NATO intervention again carrying the fight westward along the bottom of the Gulf of Sirte, towards Tripoli.

But the air mission was left more than vaguely defined. What does it mean to support the rebels? In Canada we were told that our air support was being committed to prevent civilian deaths, and this made sense to a Canadian public eager to see the end of Ghadafi at the hands of his own countrymen. We didn’t want another Rwanda on our hands after all.

Pretty soon, though, NATO aircraft were bombing targets in Tripoli. Were they trying to create the circumstance for regime change, by targeting Ghadafi himself? Probably. But the end result has been to place to civilians in Tripoli in danger of ending up as “collateral damage” (read: dead) from NATO airplanes whose mission was to protect the lives of civilians. In other words, which might have better be spoken by a character in a George Orwell novel, NATO is protecting civilian lives by killing civilians.

That may sound harsh, and it is. Certainly it’s not, never has been, nor will it ever be, part of NATO’s mission to target civilians in Libya. But, civilians are still dying at the hands of NATO fighter-bombers. Some will say that these deaths are a small price to pay to have avoided a larger massacre, and to that I say…it still didn’t have to be that way. A more rigorous interpretation of Resolution 1973 would not have led to the circumstance where NATO has become the air support wing of Libya’s rebel movement.

May was right about this: Libya is in the midst of a civil war, and Canada has chosen sides. Worthington was also right: we know that Ghadafi is a very bad man, but how much do we know about the rebels whom we are supporting? They say that they are fighting in the interests of democracy, but what does that really mean?

Whatever it is that you might think is going on now in Libya (and most Canadians, frankly, aren’t thinking too much about Libya right now), it’s not the same mission that we were sold back pre-election, when the bombing began.

In the United States, they’re having a real debate about “mission creep”, with House Republicans threatening to, well, I don’t know, do something to Obama, who has apparently exceeded his Executive ability to wage war in a time-limited fashion (to me, it looks like the only thing the Republicans can do, other than to smear Obama in the media would be to vote to impeach the President…and I think that we’ll start to hear more about this over the summer). At least in the States they’re talking about Libya.

Here in Canada, it’s all about duck and cover when it comes to the Conservatives, Liberals and the NDP. Those parties, who didn’t have much of a conversation about the original mission before the bombs began to fall, have decided that they don’t really want to talk about its extension now, either, despite acknowledging that circumstances seem to have changed.

I had actually believed that the NDP, with their new-found numbers in parliament, and having in the past professed to be a bit of a moral conscience regarding Canada’s use of our armed forces abroad, would have acknowledged that we’ve inadvertently blundered into a war whose ultimate goal must be regime change, which in this case is only tantamount to killing off Colonel Ghadafi by dumping several tonnes of high explosive on his head.

Indeed, the NDP’s Deputy Leader, Thomas Mulcair, appeared to be a critical voice for caution in the lead-up to Canada deploying our CF-18’s to Italy, to begin the civilian-saving bombardment. Mulcair’s voice was noticeably absent from the media in the recent run-up to the vote to extend the mission. Indeed, the entire NDP caucus was AWOL on this issue. Even at the NDP convention this past weekend, Party appartatchiks were able to remove a motion about Libya from the agenda, so as to avoid a potentially problematic discussion, given that all of the newly elected NDP MP’s voted to extend the mission with barely a peep.

Those involved in Canada’s peace movement must be left scratching their heads about the NDP, and questioning whether this new populist NDP remains committed to principles of peace and non-violence. Look, I understand, there are times when it is necessary to fight a just war, but I sincerely question whether what Canada and NATO are now doing in Libya in the name of “protecting civilians” is the sort of just war that we should be getting involved in. If Libya, why not Syria (or Yemen or Bahrain, for that matter)?

Just last night, NATO acknowledged that it may have caused a “number of civilian casualties” in a botched raid on Tripoli. Apparently, they were after a missile site. Whatever. The smartest of smart bombs, when dropped in a populated area, are likely to create collateral damage. When these things blow up, even when they hit their targets, the explosions are likely to impact adjacent, often non-military targets. That’s why bombing cities tends to kill civilians.

Canadians were told that our air force would be attacking tanks, or lines of armed marching soldiers under Ghadafi’s control. Or maybe attacking artillery or
airplanes on the ground, or mobile missile launchers. That’s the kind of support that Canadians thought we would be lending to the rebels, fighting for their lives in Benghazi, back when Resolution 1973 was adopted by the UN. Instead, we’re now bombing the largest city in Libya.

While Canadians remain largely disengaged to what’s going on (to the glee of the Conservatives, Liberals and NDP, no doubt), the mainstream media has started to address this issue with a little more passion than I’ve seen out of it lately. I don’t think that this issue is going to go away, despite what the vast majority of MP’s in the House of Commons (all except for 1) might hope for.

Public opinion in Canada has a habit of shaping military outcomes. Look at what happened when Canadians failed to get behind Canada’s participation in the U.S.-initiated Iraq War. This time, though, unless the NDP does another of their infamous flip-flops, it doesn’t appear that there will be anyone within government to champion a peaceful end to the unexpected Canadian participation in Libya’s civil war.

But with what I expect to be an increasing number of mainstream stories, such as the one appearing in today’s Sudbury Star regarding 70% of survey respondents disagreeing with a “majority” (read: every one but one) of parliamentarians decision to continue the mission in Libya, I do fully expect the NDP to reverse their position, after “considerable discussion and review”. Certainly, the NDP’s unequivocal support of the Libyan mission has caused some significant strain within that Party. With the broader public looking around now for leadership on this issue, and finding none (other than Elizabeth May, who represents a thinly-stretched caucus of one), the NDP having already cast their votes to extend, will now find it easier to oppose the mission.

If Jack Layton and the NDP decide to do a 180 and change their minds on Libya, of course it won’t make any difference in terms of actual outcomes. However, opposition to extending the mission at the time of last week’s vote wouldn’t have changed anything either, now that the Conservatives have a majority. A change of heart now, though, might better position the NDP to reap a political advantage, one which they’ve inexplicably abandoned to May and the Greens.

Gaining this political advantage is the reason why I expect to start seeing a change of heart in the NDP. We’ll start seeing NDP members of parliament claim that they didn’t understand the full extent of NATO’s involvement in causing civilian casualties. Perhaps they’ll even claim that they’ve been misled by the Conservatives. Slowly, at first, and then all at once, the NDP will shift themselves away from supporting the government’s position, and pretend, once again, to be champions of a peaceful resolution to the conflict.

Perhaps I’ll prove to be wrong about this, but I just don’t think so. You see, the NDP, like most political parties, including the Green Party, is guided by its values when it comes to making decisions. One of the values of the NDP which is sure to come to the forefront in any shift in position is the value of being on the right side of public opinion. As public opinion now begins to shift away from support for NATO’s bombing, the NDP will surely follow suit.

The Green Party, too, has a number of values which guide decision making. These values are enshrined in the Party’s Constitution, and are considered unassailable by the Party’s membership. In absence of specific policy direction, the Green Party can always rely on these Values to guide decision making. One of those values clearly informed Elizabeth May’s decision to become the lone dissenter in last week’s vote, the value here being the pursuit of peace and non-violence. This doesn’t mean that the Party is pacifistic in nature; indeed, May in her speech to parliament, pointed out how sometimes war can still be reconciled with such a value.

May is showing Canada that Greens really are all about a different kind of decision making: decisions will be based on values, and not simply which way the winds of public opinion seem to be blowing at any given time. As the NDP seems to be moving to fill the void left by the Liberals, and to come to terms with its sudden, jack-in-the-box like Quebec caucus, some NDP supporters must be scratching their heads, wondering just where the NDP is going to end up. They must be wondering whether the NDP can be trusted to ever do what’s right when doing what’s politically expedient seems to be more tantalizing.

Throughout the summer, I believe that an increasing number of Canadians are going to start to realize that Elizabeth May and the Greens were right about Canada’s mission in Libya. It will be interesting to see what will happen when public opinion turns against the almost unanimous will of our elected officials. Can public opinion help bring about a more peaceful resolution to the Libyan civil war? I doubt it, especially now that NATO seems to be stepping up its attacks on Ghadafi’s strongholds in Tripoli, likely in an effort to kill him, rendering public opinion for support moot.

(opinions expressed in this blog are my own, and should not be interpreted as being consistent with those of the Green Party of Canada)


Anonymous said...

“…there is no greater way to strengthen the resolve of a civilian people than aerial bombardment.”

I respect Ms. May's position on Libya, but that statement is just idiotic.

First of all, unlike Afghanistan and Iraq, resolve is not the issue here. There is no evidence that the civilian population of Libya supports Gadhahi's as evidenced by the fact that he can't maintain control of any area where he doesn't have absolutely dominant security forces or mercenaries. The Libyan people are not "resolved" to prevent Gadhafi's ouster in the first place.

Sure, aerial bombardment CAN strengthen people's resolve to oppose a given side in a war or armed conflict, but whether it DOES depends on many factors. The most obvious factor is whether there are large numbers of civilian casualties ("large", of course, being a relative concept).

But we know there have been many cases where air strikes have led to fewer civilian casualties than other forms of warfare, turned the population against their leaders or both.

NATO removed the Taliban--who initially had an army of hundreds of thousands--from power in less than 60 days, preventing incalcuable civilian casualities, because the Taliban army had no way to fight back against terrifying air strikes coming from planes they couldn't even see and so most just gave up and feld back to their homes. (The decision to remain in Afghanistan for a decade and begin using air strikes in a very different is a different matter.)

In Kosovo, air strikes were used to stop a genocide with very minimal civilian casualties where an invasion would doubtlessly killed far more.

In World War II, bombing only seemed to strengthen the resolve of the British people, but it totally demoralized the Germany people. While Hitler was ruthless in keeping a lid on descent, it can't be denying that morale played a role in the collapse of the Germany war effort.

While I bristle at the sight of civilian deaths, May's comment belies a totally lack of understanding of the history and consequences aerial bombing. Sadly, as a progressive, I find this particular form of ignorance--singling out air strikes as a particularly evil form of warfare--all too common given that it is completely unsupported by the facts.

Sudbury Steve said...

I've seen a number of reports from rebel groups, questioning just what NATO "support" means. Just last week, an acknowledged "friendly fire" incident killed a number of "friendly" rebels.

This is a civil war. The civilians being bombed in Tripoli by NATO airplanes have friends and family amongst the rebels. When the war comes to an end, NATO's actions will be recalled by whoever ends up in power.

And that's what Peter Worthington was getting at: just who are these rebels? Are they truly going to be friends to Western regimes, particularly ones which have participated in airstrikes against Libyan infrastructure? The media's take on this suggests that the rebels which have the best chance of emerging to fill the power vacuum might hold NATO to account for civilian deaths.

Perhaps you should read the full text of May's speech to parliament, to obtain a better undertanding of where she is coming from. I admittedly chose a couple of quotes she made, disregarding the context in which they were spoken. However, if you remain a fan of aerial bombardments as an instrument of "winning the peace" (which appears to be the position our government has arrived at), your opinion may not change.

Even as an instrument of conducting warfare, they can not be relied on. If we really want regime change in Libya, sending in the special forces would likely do the trick. In Afghanistan, an acknowledged theatre of war, those same Taliban which were removed from power by NATO air superiority, and chased away from Kabul by NATO groundforces (in both cases, read: American) are now, more than 10 years later, negotiating with the U.S. and it's puppet Karzai regime, so that Obama can start a troop draw down (because the U.S. can no longer afford to wage this expensive war).

I understand that military intervention can save lives. If that's the case, why not truly get serious about this? If as you suspect, the majority of Libyans are not truly Ghadafi supporters, but are instead forced to support his police state through fear and intimidation, one would think that they would welcome a decisive form of intervention to remove their head of state.

And of course, the same would be true in Syria and Yemen, and perhaps Bahrain. And Chechnya, and Sinkiang.

Is Libya better off now, due to NATO intervention? I believe that's hard to say, and that we're going to have to wait until this all plays itself out. But after all these days of bombing, I would have hoped that we would be in a better position to know whether or not our campaign to help the rebels was the right thing to do.