Members of Parliament took part in a four-hour 'take-note' debate on the conflict in Mali and Canada's contribution to the mission Tuesday night.
To date, the federal government has contributed one C-17 military transport plane to help support the French military intervention in Mali at a cost of roughly $18.6 million to Canadian taxpayers.
The massive cargo-lifter was dispatched roughly three weeks ago and has completed 13 airlift missions to Bamako, the capital of Mali. Its mission is due to end Feb. 15.
I think that last sentence should have read: Its mission is currently due to end Feb. 15. That deadline has already been extended once and since the French have stated publicly that they're in Mali for the long haul it seems fair to suggest that it may be extended again.
The obvious conclusion is that the Conservative position is to support the French intervention while taking Canadian involvement a few weeks at a time. How about the opposition parties?
New Democrat MP Paul Dewar, who is his party's foreign affairs critic, said while the debate helps provide "much-needed oversight" of Canada's role in Mali, the government's position has been "inconsistent" with ministers sending "mixed messages."
"The government must be clear both about the purpose and level of commitment," said Dewar.
To place Dewar's comments in perspective, there's this:
Opposition Leader Tom Mulcair has supported the government's decision to offer the assistance of the C-17...
And the Liberals?
Interim Liberal leader Bob Rae said he got the sense the government was being very cautious about its engagement in Mali and wondered why the federal government would not keep the C-17 running as long as Canada felt it necessary "to protect the security of Mali, West Africa, Canada and the world," instead of setting a deadline.
So there's no real debate here on support for the French taking military action in another sovereign nation. The argument, such as it is, involves whether or not we should give the French an open-ended commitment.
A real debate about the wisdom of Canada's policy might have raised a few points that appear to have been overlooked. There's the fact that France has a long history of colonial activity in North Africa and it's easy to make the argument that its priority in the region isn't the protection of democracy but the protection of its access to resources such as uranium. Given that history, even if intervention can really be justified should France be the one to lead the charge? Does our support for the French say something about our own motives for being there?
There's the additional fact that much of the unrest in the region is the result of previous interventions by NATO countries. The most recent of those was Libya, where the French were also the first in — they barely allowed time for the ink to dry on the UN resolution authorizing the mission — and one of the results was the displacement of large numbers of people who ended up in Mali, bringing weapons with them. We rush into these interventions with very little understanding of the long term consequences and those consequences are often bad.
A real debate on Canada's foreign policy might have included some critical analysis of these issues and questioned whether Canada should be lending any support to the military intervention in Mali at all. Even if the final result was to affirm the original government policy, surely the exercise would be worthwhile. But it doesn't appear that any of our elected representatives were willing to go there.
If only we had a group whose job it actually was to provide critical analysis of government policy, to encourage real debate. We could call them something like the Official Opposition. I guess we can dream.