Thursday, January 26, 2006

Lost innocence

"Losing one's innocence" is a phrase meant to describe a whole host of events in the life of an individual, a community, a nation, or a world. Regardless of the application, it means, essentially, the same thing. Some watershed event has occurred that causes us to never look at the world the same way again.

One such event happened today in London, and while the import of it may be lost on a great number of Canadians, it serves no less important a demarcation.

Today, Foreign Affairs officer Glyn Barry was laid to rest, and his death, along with those brave Canadian soldiers that were injured in the attack outside Kandahar, represent the public's first notice of what political scientists call the "paradigm shift."

We have been raised on the Pearsonian ideal of "peacekeeping," of the site of the legendary UN Blue Berets. We even built a statue in tribute, and print a remembrance of it on our money. But we now know, especially in light of these tragic events, that "peacekeeping" has been supplanted by "peacemaking."

The truth is, we knew a long time ago. In the early 1990's, Canada shifted its commitments in the former Yugoslavia from UN missions to NATO and US led operations - sometimes referred to as a switch from blue berets to green berets.

The desperate actions of the various factions and their partisans, combined with a lack of the niceties that traditionally marked these missions, drove Ottawa to make the change. While blue berets were constrained by the Security Council's need to seek consensus, green berets were free to carry out the mission with more latitude.

To put it bluntly, green berets did not need to call New York to ask whether they could retaliate if shot at - they were free to fire at will.

Afghanistan, we should remember, is a NATO mission, and as such, carries a different set of rules of conduct than a UN effort.

But while Canadian policymakers were astute enough to realize that people often do not play nice or keep their word, and you need to respond in kind where necessary, they did not appreciate it enough to put their money where their policy was.

A more aggressive stance needs the necessary equipment and resources to back it up.

At the same time Ottawa was prepared to take a more assertive stance in peacemaking, it underfunded and undersourced the military - fewer soldiers, older equipment, and no strategic airlift to get them to where they needed to go.

To the credit of the outgoing Martin government, they did do three important things to move in the right direction: First, they increased the budget; second, through Defence Minister Bill Graham, they set the context of this new reality by preparing Canadians for the real possibility of casualties; and third, they appointed a Chief of Staff like Gen. Rick Hillier who appreciates the challenge and is keen to reshape the Canadian Forces accordingly.

The 'Canada First' defence policy put forth by Prime Minister Harper should bring us full circle in this evolution of stance.

Lester Pearson's legacy is not dead - peacekeeping is still an honourable policy and duty for international stability. But we must appreciate that keeping the peace presumes that it was there to begin with. That requires a stubborn recognition that conflicts are not always tidy affairs conducted by rational actors with a sense of honour found in a Gilbert and Sullivan opera.

Certainly, Glyn Berry's death is the death of an outmoded ideal as well.

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