There has yet to be a single question about foreign policy in the NDP’s first two leadership debates, but some contenders say they want the party to devote a forum to international affairs.
During a gathering organized by Courage after the recent youth issues debate in Montreal I asked Niki Ashton whether she voted in favour of bombing Libya. The NDP leadership candidate said she and a few other MPs sought to dissuade then-leader Jack Layton from supporting the NATO war. Failing to convince him, Ashton said she couldn’t remember if she voted yes on Libya.
Here’s the background:
The NDP supported a vote in March 2011 and another in June of that year initiated by the minority Stephen Harper government endorsing the bombing of Libya. Green Party leader Elizabeth May was the only member of parliament to vote against a war in which Canada played a significant role. A Canadian general led the NATO bombing campaign, seven CF-18 fighter jets participated, two Canadian naval vessels patrolled the Libyan coast and an unknown number of Canadian special forces invaded.
Since the war Libya has descended into chaos. ISIS has taken control of parts of the country while various warring factions and hundreds of militias operate in the country of 6 million. Not only did the war destabilize that country, in 2012 the Libyan conflict spilled south into Mali and has even strengthened Boko Haram in Nigeria.
The African Union predicted as much. In opposing the invasion of Libya, AU Commission Chief Jean Ping said, “Africa’s concern is that weapons that are delivered to one side or another … are already in the desert and will arm terrorists and fuel trafficking.”
Days into the February 2011 uprising in Eastern Libya the AU Peace and Security Council sought a negotiated solution to the conflict, but was rebuffed by the US/Britain/France/Canada backed National Transitional Council, which controlled Benghazi. A week before NATO began bombing Libya, the AU Peace and Security Council put forward a five-point plan demanding: “A cease-fire; the protection of civilians; the provision of humanitarian aid for Libyans and foreign workers in the country; dialogue between the two sides, i.e. the Gaddafi regime and the National Transitional Council (NTC); leading to an ‘inclusive transitional period’ and political reforms which ‘meet the aspirations of the Libyan people.'”
Three weeks into the bombing the AU High Level Ad Hoc Committee on Libya, including four heads of state, visited Libya to pursue a ceasefire. Gaddafi agreed to the first phase of the proposal but it was rejected by the NATO-backed NTC. At a meeting with the UN Security Council three months into NATO’s war the AU High Level Ad Hoc Committee on Libya criticized the war. Delivering the AU position, Ruhakana Rugunda, Uganda’s permanent representative to the UN, said: “There has been no need for these war activities, ever since Gaddafi accepted dialogue when the AU Mediation Committee visited Tripoli on April 10. Any war activities after that have been provocation for Africa.”
In Slouching Towards Sirte: NATO’s War on Libya and Africa, Concordia University professor Maximilian Forte argues the invasion of Libya was designed to eliminate an important supporter of African unity and critic of Western militarism on the continent. Gaddafi spearheaded opposition to the United States’ Africa Command (AFRICOM), which Washington wanted to set up on the continent. A 2009 cable from the US Embassy in Tripoli called “the presence of non- African military elements in Libya or elsewhere on the continent” almost a “neuralgic issue” for Gaddafi. Eliminating Gaddafi delivered a blow to the AU and those who rejected AFRICOM.
Ashton’s inability to remember whether she voted to support the war on Libya leaves much to be desired. But I don’t want to single her out unfairly. The only reason I thought to ask Ashton about Libya is that she attended the Courage event, which is part of her plan to draw the party closer to social movements. Moreover, at the youth issues debate Ashton criticized the party leadership for “turfing” pro-Palestinian candidates during the 2015 federal election campaign.
Ashton seems to have brought up Palestine partly because the Young New Democrats of Quebec asked the party leadership to include a question in the debate about Palestine. They refused.
During my conversation with Ashton she said the party should devote more energy to discussing foreign policy issues. In response, I asked if she would publicly call for one of the planned eight leadership debates to be devoted to the subject. She agreed, writing in a follow-up message: “Grassroots members are calling for a specific debate on foreign policy or foreign policy questions at each debate and the party should listen and follow suit.”
Afterwards I emailed the three other registered contenders and potential candidate Sid Ryan to ask whether they would “support a leadership debate devoted to military and foreign policy issues” and whether they voted to support the NATO bombing of Libya. (Guy Caron and Sid Ryan were not in the House of Commons at the time of the votes so I didn’t ask them about Libya.)
Charlie Angus and Peter Julian did not reply to my question about whether they voted to bomb Libya. Angus and Julian also ignored the question about a foreign policy-focused debate.
Guy Caron’s spokesperson wrote that he’s “looking forward to getting a chance to debate foreign policy issues. While the party has not indicated specific themes for the remaining debates, I would certainly be open to having a substantive discussion on questions of foreign policy.”
For his part, Ryan expressed “concern as to why the NDP debates have completely ignored the question of foreign policy” and said he “absolutely supports the idea of holding a debate that focuses exclusively on foreign policy.”
A video Ryan recently released bemoans “billions of dollars for the NATO war machine” and shows a protest sign that says, “Stop the U.S.-Israel war”. Elsewhere, Ryan has said Canada should withdraw from NATO, which sharply contrasts with outgoing leader Tom Mulcair’s description of the NDP as “proud members of NATO.” While Mulcair pushed to strengthen sanctions against Russia, Ryan has called for an end to Canada’s military deployments in Eastern Europe. In maybe the starkest difference, Ryan has spoken at pro-Palestinian demonstrations and when he was president of CUPE-Ontario he accepted the members’ vote to support the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions campaign targeting Israel’s violation of international law. For his part, Mulcair purged a number of NDP candidates–some elected by local riding associations–that supported Palestinian rights.
There are important differences of opinion within the NDP regarding foreign policy questions. These issues deserve to be aired.
A party unable to openly debate its foreign policy is likely to support another war that devastates a small African country.