These are not scare quotes--as if these things are supposed to be scary. Nope, I am raising the question of how real these commitments are. In short, the poo-bahs of the Canadian government committed to spend more money on peace-keeping, which is fine, and setting aside 600 troops to be deployed someday in UN operations. This, again, is fine, but the lofty rhetoric and the announcement made by not one, not two, but four cabinet ministers about Canada being back is a bit much.
I get it that this government had to make some kind of commitment so that Canada would be invited to a major conference in London in two weeks focusing on peacekeeping. I also get it that Minister Harjit Sajjan had to say something after spending some very visible time checking out a series of potential missions in Africa.
BUT NO DECISIONS were made/announced of any consequence. What am I looking for?
The first obvious one to ask is: 600 troops in one spot or will they be divided over five or twenty spots? If one spot, then we can ask different questions than if five or twenty. If one, what is the mission? What are the goals of the effort? Will Canada lead the entire effort or a regional piece of the larger effort? If many mission, what does Canada hope to achieve? Yes, Canada can provide "enablers" who are force multipliers--they make everyone else more effective. But that usually is going to be in a role where the Canadians would have little in the way of leadership posts or influence. There are tradeoffs between going big and focused or small and many, and we have yet no clue about what tradeoff.
The second question, which the media is focused on, is where? Almost all of the focus has been on various on-going missions in Africa. Lots of these missions are not going well, so perhaps a Canadian deployment can make a difference by changing what the mission is doing or adding a particularly effective unit. Of course, as the military always says, reinforce success, not failure, as pouring men and material into a failure (the Somme, for instance) is not good.
This leads to the third question: why not Colombia? There is now an agreement to enforce. And unlike Mali, Colombia is not (as far as I know) experienced much in the way of suicide bombers. The Colombia peace may not be easy to enforce, but it will be not nearly as hard as helping France out in Mali. Do we want to be helping the French out in an Islamic country at a time where French politicians are outbidding each other to discriminate against Muslims? Just curious.
Fourth, the rhetoric of being "back" is kind of silly if the number is 600. That is the roughly size of what Canada did in East Timor and in Haiti in the 2000's, but Canada was doing more than one mission at a time before it mostly got out of the UN business. So, this would be more than what Harper was doing, but much less than what Chretien was doing. A battalion, which the military unit closest to 600, is the basic minimal deployable unit. It is, in some ways, the least one can do. Maybe Canada is stretched by the forthcoming Latvia mission and the ongoing Iraq training effort, but Canada did manage to send 3000 troops to combat in Kandahar AND send a battalion or so of peacekeepers to Haiti. So, Canada could do more, but it would cost money.
Fifth, the announcement invoked "whole of government"--that this effort will involve multiple agencies working together. As I criticized in my book, this whole of government thing is over-rated. Agencies don't play well together, and it requires intense attention by the Prime Minister himself to make sure that the agencies cooperate much at all. Does this promise to do whole of government mean that Canada's development aid will switch to whatever mission that is ultimately chosen? What does that mean for Global Affairs and the on-going review of assistance efforts? Some missions would not need much whole of government at all--Colombia--and others might need a good bit more. And, please, don't be too nostalgic for how wonderful Canada's whole of government effort was in Afghanistan. Other countries admired it, but they were starting for a low basis of comparison (their own WoG efforts).
The point here is that what Canada is doing thus far is being oversold. The stuff that was announced is all significant and welcome, but the rhetoric is over the top for a decision that is mostly about delaying a decision. This is a very big rollout for a placeholder--we will be making decisions, not just today. Ok, thanks.