Ten years and seven weeks ago, this paper's front-page headline read, in banner letters, "Canadians head off to war." That would become the longest, and possibly the most controversial, military combat operation in Canadian history. On Thursday, with the lowering of the Maple Leaf flag at Kandahar Air Force base, it effectively came to an end: For the first time in more than a decade, Canada is not at war.
Enjoy it while it lasts. This may be peace, but it sure doesn't feel like a period of lasting calm. It might be better to say that we're between wars.
For, as we saw in Libya this year, we are sure to be asked again to send soldiers to put a stop to a mass atrocity somewhere, or (more likely) to prevent an atrocity that we believe will occur. This is a new, post-Cold War type of military operation, and we still don't really know how to decide whether to use it or not, whether we'll end up helping or causing further harm, how to gauge its success, even when to get out.
I spent Friday at a stately home in southern England with senior politicians, diplomats, scholars and military figures from Canada and Britain as they tried to hash out a set of principles for future interventions in troubled countries. The long shadow of Afghanistan's failure loomed over the day. But so did the comparative sanity, and inarguable brevity, of the NATO war in Libya.
In the 20 years that have passed since the Soviet Union dissolved in December, 1991, we've seen foreign militaries intervene in domestic conflicts – as peacekeepers, combat-oriented "peace support" soldiers or outright regime changers – in Namibia, Nicaragua, Angola, Cambodia, El Salvador, Mozambique, Liberia, Rwanda, Bosnia, Croatia, Guatemala, East Timor, Sierra Leone, Kosovo, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Afghanistan, Liberia, Burundi, the Ivory Coast, and twice in Sudan.
Most of these countries are now better off, more stable and democratic, as a result of the foreign boots. Of course, some of the largest and most expensive examples, notably Iraq and Afghanistan, were failures that made things worse, in Iraq's case disastrously so. Those are, not coincidentally, the places where outsiders haven't just lent support to an existing liberation struggle but have started one themselves, and then tried to stick around and build a government and a society.
It's popular nowadays to say, for understandable reasons, that we should get out of the military-intervention business forever, and stick to blue-helmet United Nations peacekeeping, like we did before 1991. (The Persian Gulf war that year was Canada's first full-fledged military commitment since Korea in the 1950s.)
I can almost sympathize. But then I remember the horrible years of 1994 and 1995, when more than 500,000 Rwandans were hacked to death in a matter of weeks because peacekeepers weren't allowed to stop them, and tens of thousands of Bosnian Muslims and thousands of Serbs and Croats were killed in terrible ways because the blue helmets were obligated to stand by and watch.
The NATO air operation in Bosnia that year marked a turning point, and brought an uneasy but genuine peace. And the one in Kosovo in 1999 marked something new: a NATO campaign to prevent a looming slaughter, and to provoke the ouster of a tyrant. It was too successful: In 2003, its logic would return as caricature in the form of the Iraq war.
The "humanitarian war" became the oxymoron of our age. Canada tried to codify it into international policy with the creation of the "responsibility to protect" (R2P) doctrine, an obligation to intervene to stop atrocities, which prime minister Jean Chrétien had the misfortune of attempting to sell to world leaders shortly after president George W. Bush's "mission accomplished" speech. Its principles sounded far too much like the Iraq war's cobbled-together self-justifications.
The R2P doctrine sprung back to life this year, because it was used to make the legal case for the Libya operation. But I doubt it could ever become a universal code: We'll never intervene in Zimbabwe or Tibet, because we'd have no support from the surrounding countries and zero chance of success. We decided against intervening in Sudan's Darfur catastrophe, in part because there was a good chance it would make things worse.
I fear that Libya will be seen as a precedent, rather than an exception. Or that Bosnia will be forgotten, and a "humanitarian corridor" to Syria will become another peacekeeping quagmire. But I also fear that another genocidal massacre will be allowed to pass without comment. War is hell, but it's not the only one.