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Meet the new war

As I write this, the parliamentary planets are moving into alignment. Today, a federal election in May could become official.

As I write this, the parliamentary planets are moving into alignment. Today, a federal election in May could become official. It’s not yet clear whether the defining issue for the campaign will be the daily deluge of scandals in which the Conservatives find themselves embroiled, or the risible notion that they have been good money managers. Off the agenda altogether is the fact that we’ve just joined a new war.

On Wednesday, John Boehner, Speaker of the US House of Representatives, sent President Barrack Obama a letter requesting “a clear and robust assessment of the scope, objective, and purpose of our mission in Libya and how it will be achieved”. The letter asks Obama to clarify the discrepancy between the US goal to remove the dictator Gadhafi and the UN resolution which calls only for the protection of civilians.

House Republicans want to know if the UN’s sanctioning of a “no-fly zone” authorizes attacks on ground forces such as tanks and artillery. They question whether US forces will remain on the attack should the hastily-patched-together coalition begin to fray at the seams. They ask how long the war will last, what is its purpose, and how we will know when it’s over.

There are other questions they could have asked, but didn’t. Why Gadhafi? And why now? Who are the rebels with whom the great powers of Europe and North America have suddenly decided to ally themselves? Will the war expand to include other Arab nations if their brutal repression of dissent continues? How bad does a country have to be before it qualifies for air strikes? How many Libyans are we willing to slaughter to prevent Gadhafi from slaughtering Libyans?

At present, Syrian security forces are using water cannon, tear gas, and live ammunition to suppress peaceful protests. Daily body counts are small compared to Libya, but growing - five dead one day, seven another, ten another. A week ago, soldiers in Yemen gunned down fifty protestors, and it is said the prospect of civil war looms. Saudi Arabia has banned protests with threats to deal “firmly” with any violators of the ban.

Gadhafi didn’t begin killing civilians this month. He’s been jailing, torturing, and murdering his people for forty years, during which time all of the countries now engaged in the air war have been happy to do business with him. Even after it was known that Gadhafi ordered the 1988 bombing of Pan Am flight 103, killing 270 people, most of them citizens of the coalition countries, it was still considered acceptable to do business with Libya. SNC Lavalin, the Quebec corporate giant with close ties to both the federal Conservatives and the equally conservative BC Liberals, has made billions on engineering projects there, and recently began construction of a new prison in Tripoli.

If Western nations really cared about human rights and the deaths of civilians, we would have engaged our Middle Eastern allies and trading partners on the subject long ago. Instead we have propped them up with military aid, purchased their blood-oil with no questions asked, met with their brutal dictators at UN and G20 meetings and in general treated them like friends.

The action against Gadhafi’s forces is currently being billed as a humanitarian intervention, and to the extend that it prevents the massacre of civilians, it may justify the term. But it is an intervention achieved by the dropping of bombs and the firing of missiles; by any rational interpretation, that’s a war. How much debate did it take before Canada’s politicians decided to join this war? How much discussion can we expect on the campaign trail, given that all parties supported the action?

If the purpose of this war is to get rid of Gadhafi it will fail unless it becomes a ground war. Will we send in troops, or attempt to bomb the Libyan army into such a state of disrepair that the rebels can do the job themselves? If so, who are these rebels? Will this be Afghanistan revisited, where we turf one gang of thugs to install another?

When your government tells you it is going to war for humanitarian reasons it may be so, though it’s hard to find a clear precedent. More common reasons range from national or corporate interests to domestic political optics, and it’s not hard to see how both of these factors might be at play in Libya. Civil war threatens to destabilize the world’s oil supply, while TV viewers everywhere are increasingly disturbed by Gadhafi’s excesses.

Maybe it can all work out for the best. The question is how. The House Republicans have a right to an answer from Obama on this question. Here in Canada it seems nobody is even asking.

Al Pope won the Ma Murray Award for Best Columnist in BC/Yukon in 2010 and 2002. His novel, Bad Latitudes, is available in bookstores.