WASHINGTON – Canada is contemplating a return to “peacekeeping.”
The Justin Trudeau government’s concept of peacekeeping falls into the, “we’re not Stephen Harper’s Tories” category of avoiding expeditionary military activity, such as Afghanistan, like the plague.
There is even the thought within Trudeau’s Liberal government that “Canada-the-Peacekeeper” will get more votes when seeking a temporary seat on the UN Security Council in 2021.
But if there is some vague, amorphous concept of once-upon-a-time peacekeeping which featured the equivalent of civilians in military garb, “back to the future” will prove a bitter and possibly bloody result.
Perhaps the mental image Canadians have is of their peacekeeping role in Cyprus from 1964-1993 where 25,000 Canadian troops cycled through the island to keep the Greek and Turkish Cypriots from each other’s throats.
In that case, there was a neatly defined “Green Line” dividing the hostile communities which was largely observed, making for rather dull tours of duty for the Canadian forces.
Eventually, driven by the conclusion it was a waste of money and could be handled by the equivalent of a troop of Boy Scouts, Ottawa withdrew from Cyprus.
The peacekeeping images Canadians wants to skip past are those from Somalia in 1993, where the Canadian Airborne Regiment proved incapable of keeping peace and tortured to death a Somali teenager (Shidane Arone) caught infiltrating the unit’s camp to steal.
The “trophy photos” of the dying Somali may not be as historically memorable as Abu Ghraib, where Iraqi prisoners were abused and tortured, but they were sufficient to disband the airborne unit.
Then there’s the fate of former Canadian Brig.-Gen. Romeo Dallaire in Rwanda.
Essentially, given responsibility with no authority, he ended by “shaking hands with the devil”, as he put it in his book of the same name, powerless to prevent the massacre of Hutu Rwandans. Also killed were 10 Belgian soldiers and debate continues to this day on whether Dallaire could have done more to save them.
Now we have Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan having returned from a tour of Mali, South Sudan, Central African Republic and the Democratic Republic of Congo.
His travels give the impression of a desperate search for an assignment where Canadian forces will not be killed and that will conclude with national acclaim and Canada smelling like roses.
Upon his return, Sajjan, Foreign Affairs Minister Stephane Dion and other cabinet ministers, announced Canada will commit 600 troops to peacekeeping, including engineers and medical personnel, with ancillary helicopters and other aircraft.
But there was no announcement about where they would go and when.
Happily for Canadians, their forces are not already on the tarmac waiting for aircraft to take them into the never-never.
There is still time for rethinking.
First, Canada has been more engaged in peacekeeping than it appreciates.
The extended tour in Afghanistan was a UN-endorsed effort with well-equipped, effectively organized allies.
Today, Canadian forces in Iraq are providing useful operational assistance in the fight against ISIS, illustrating that in modern peacekeeping, combat action against multiple challenges is the reality.
Second, none of the countries mentioned in the Sajjan tour have identifiable action and responsibility parameters in which Canadians would be in control;
Third, there are no exit strategies — these countries have open-ended conflict problems;
Fourth, casualties will be significant and Canadians are body bag adverse;
Finally, there is an obvious circumstance in Canada’s “backyard” that offers far better opportunities for success and accomplishment: Haiti.
Haiti is a long-running semi-disaster in the Caribbean.
It is still far from recovered from its devastating 2010 earthquake, with housing and public infrastructure in deplorable condition.
The UN force on the island is associated with contributing to a cholera epidemic starting in that year.
By contrast, Canada has experience in Haiti with substantial numbers of the Canadian population of Haitian origin.
These citizens provide a solid linguistic and cultural basis for understanding the issues involved in Haiti.
The country has defined parameters; its culture is comprehensible and its politics, although chaotic, are not characterized by armed insurgency.
There are specific, identifiable objectives for rebuilding the country, physically and politically.
In short, Canada should “adopt” Haiti.
It should make rehabilitating Haiti its long term objective, for which the more traditional form of “peacekeeping” is relevant, using Canadian forces as organizers and implementers.
Rewards would be tangible and globally apparent, with no body bags.
As for Africa, it’s useful when considering the possibility for peacekeeping there to recall the adage associated with the unintended consequences of good intentions: “I didn’t realize that when I decided to drain the swamp I would be hip deep in alligators.”
Jones is a retired senior U.S. diplomat who served as political minister counsellor at the U.S. embassy in Ottawa. A version of this article first appeared in the Sept. 11 issue of Montreal Metropolitain