A measured response
The prime minister acknowledged anxiety in the country a decade after the runup to a botched war in Iraq, but he tried to lay out the differences this time in Syria.
The opposition leader, and some government members, slowed any march to a military strike by rightly raising concerns.
The former foreign minister said the government has not proved its case, but a one-time defence minister said the international community’s credibility would be damaged if it did not move on Bashar Assad.
It all played out in a spirited, informative debate in Parliament because, as the foreign minister put it, “that’s what Parliament is for.’’
No, not here.
The British Parliament convened on a summer day to debate the most vexing and perilous international question in many years while our Parliament remained shuttered, home only to tourists and construction workers.
Yes, there is danger in drawing parallels between London and the government of David Cameron and Ottawa and the government of Stephen Harper.
Cameron presides over a coalition government and has little manoeuvrability. Harper has a majority and every right to take any executive action he wants on international matters without parliamentary approval.
Britain still deals with the shadow of Iraq and the 179 soldiers it lost in the ill-fated mission.
Canada deals with no such legacy because former prime minister Jean Chrétien kept us out of the George W. Bush coalition of the willing.
Should there be western reprisals in Syria, Britain will be key to the effort. Ottawa will be more of a quiet cheerleader, its role symbolic or supportive.
Last week, Harper finally pronounced on Syria, saying he is a “reluctant convert” to the need for a western response, but after talking to allies, he stands with those weighing a strike.
He said there are no plans for a Canadian contribution to any military action and said there was no ideal outcome to this crisis.
His position was measured and nuanced, without any bellicosity or rhetoric, a long way from the “we won’t cut and run” in Afghanistan Harper, an even longer way from opposition leader Harper claiming Chrétien made “a serious mistake” in not taking us into Iraq.
This is a much more circumspect prime minister after years of using the military as a jingoistic symbol.
So, if we are not putting any Canadian lives at risk and are supporters rather than participants, surely, some will argue, there is no point in airlifting 308 MPs back to the sleepy capital for that.
After all, the Commons didn’t vote to join Desert Storm with the first Bush, or vote to stay apart from the Iraq folly of his son.
But that’s what the place is for.
Canada’s support, even if symbolic, is crucial to any mission or strike that does not carry with it a United Nations stamp, and this one will not. There is serious doubt about the legality of going around the UN and the more national voices giving it legitimacy, the better.
If our Parliament can speak with one voice in that support, it is to our credit.
If the “responsibility to protect’’ doctrine is cited, that merits Canadian debate because, as former United Nations ambassador Allan Rock reminded last week, this country was the “father” to the doctrine and it is tailor made for Syrian intervention.
Surely there are MPs who have concerns about the potential for regional conflict looming, the threat of an Iranian strike on Israel, the long-term ramifications of the West’s relations with Russia.
There is always a danger of “mission creep” drawing Canada beyond a symbolic role.
Do MPs have nothing to say about our humanitarian aid or a Canadian lifeline for Syrian refugees?
They should be heard.
Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird has briefed Opposition Leader Tom Mulcair and Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau, and that is proper.
But Mulcair and Trudeau deserve the opportunity to lay out their views on this crisis, while it is unfolding, in the House of Commons.
Both men want to be prime minister, so let them stand in their place and explain what they would do if they held power.
Harper allowed votes on extending the Afghanistan mission twice and on Canadian participation and — then an extension — of the 2011 NATO Libyan mission.
We are not joining any potential mission, but we are backing one, and for that reason alone, Canadians deserve to hear from the men and women we sent to Ottawa to represent us.
Tim Harper is a syndicated Toronto Star national affairs writer. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.