Senator John McCain bluntly warned of a widening conflict and chided those unwilling to intervene while Defence Minister Peter MacKay ducked when asked if Canada would back a no-fly zone over Syria, saying the situation was "complex in the extreme."
Mr. MacKay was in Washington to bestow an honorary degree from Canada's Royal Military College on the plain-speaking veteran senator who for decades has unambiguously championed military intervention to protect the defenceless and topple ruthless regimes. Mr. MacKay called the former presidential candidate "truly one of the great men of our generation," and Mr. McCain reciprocated by noting that his host was a friend. But even as the two extolled each other's virtues, they remained far apart on how to deal with the civil war in Syria, the current gravest threat to international security.
Asked if he would back Mr. McCain's clarion call for a no-fly zone enforced by Western combat planes to end the hundreds of sorties flown against rebel forces by Syrian warplanes, Mr. MacKay largely avoided the question.
Syria "is a complex situation in the extreme," he said. "The tragedy has ripple effects throughout the region. The humanitarian crisis continues to mount." Despite the decision by President Barack Obama to send weapons to the Syrian opposition, Mr. MacKay said Canada was sticking with an increase in humanitarian aid.
Mr. McCain, while careful to say it wasn't his role to tell Canadians or the Canadian government what to do, pointedly noted the dangers of standing by as ruthless regimes slaughtered their own people. And he noted that in Kosovo, Canadian warplanes had joined the U.S.-led air war to defeat Serb forces. In Libya, the no-fly zone enforced by Canadian, U.S. and allied warplanes was a NATO operations commanded by a Canadian air force general.
"Unless we take some decisive action, the conflagration will spread," Mr. McCain warned. A former naval aviator who spent five years in a Vietnamese prison camp, Mr. McCain was a leading proponent of the surge in Iraq and one of the first to call for a no-fly zone that eventually led to the toppling of Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi.
The two also responded to reports that the Taliban have offered to open peace talks.
Mr. McCain said he "was not optimistic" about the prospects for success, adding he still regarded the Taliban – toppled from power by U.S. military intervention in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on Washington and New York – as a terrorist organization.
The senator, who opposed the pullout of all U.S. and allied combat troops – Canada's have already gone – from Afghanistan on a fixed timetable, said that further undermined prospects for a negotiated peace. Still, Mr. McCain said: Tthat doesn't mean you can't negotiate … anything that would bring an end to this conflict, I think most Americans and most Canadians would support."
TV cameras and other U.S. and Canadian media were banned – at the direction of the minister's office from the degree-presentation ceremony. No reason was offered except that Mr. MacKay described it as a "very intimate and somewhat informal" event.
After the closed degree presentation ceremony at the Canadian embassy, Mr. MacKay crossed the Potomac for his first formal Pentagon bilateral with Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel.
After the bilateral, Canadian officials said a large portion of discussions focused on the evolving and serious security situation in Syria. They also said Mr. Hagel indicated he planned to attend the Halifax International Security Forum next November.
Earlier, Mr. MacKay, in a speech to the Organization of American States and the Inter-American Defense Board, said Canada will continue to deploy warships and military aircraft to joint anti-drug operations in the Caribbean and off the Pacific coast of Central America to show Ottawa's ongoing commitment to the counter-narcotics effort in the Americas.
Mr. MacKay said such operations demonstrated that the "men and women of the Canadian Forces are routinely working in partnership with both military and law enforcement personnel from many of your countries" in the battle against the multibillion-dollar illicit drug trade.
Mr. MacKay said the effort "is beneficial to all of us – it enriches [our neighbours'] security and also prevents crime from flowing into other countries, including Canada."
After a century when nations south of the Rio Grande barely registered on Canada's foreign policy horizon, a slew of trade agreements in the last few years underscores Ottawa's new-found interest in the region.
"Last year, for instance, two-way trade between Canada and the region amounted to about $56-billion – a 32 per cent increase over the 2007 figure – thanks in no small part to the seven free trade agreements we have signed with countries from Mexico to Chile," Mr. MacKay said.
He added that closer ties and co-operation throughout the hemisphere, in trade, exchanges and joint efforts to combat common threats, were vital.
"That's because challenges like drug trafficking, transnational criminal organizations, and natural disasters affect us all," he said. "These threats are complex and they don't respect borders."