Canadian Charles Bouchard, a lieutenant-general in the Royal Canadian Air Force, led the NATO mission that helped overthrow Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi. United States Secretary of Defence Leon Panetta showered him with praise at the weekend Halifax International Security Conference, describing him as a courageous, tough leader who “took no prisoners” and was key to the mission’s success. Gen. Bouchard now contemplates the lessons from the mission, along with his delayed retirement.
It must be strange to suddenly be vaulted to the front of the world stage like this after a long career.
Eight months ago, in February, I announced my intention to retire from the Canadian Forces. Little did I know. … But we need to talk about the true warriors of this operation, the people on board of the Charlottetown who went into harm’s way to keep the Misrata port open. The fighter aircraft that went beyond search-and-rescue coverage on some of the missions. That takes guts. That’s the kind of thing we saw Canadians do.
What is the danger of thinking, ‘It worked in Libya, why not Syria?’
I think you can take those lessons and apply them somewhere else, but you can’t take it as a cookie cutter and think it will work. The world cannot be looked at that way. I don’t want to be glib, but one’s in Africa, the other is in the Middle East. One borders on Turkey, one of the NATO countries. Iraq is on the other side. That changes the approach right there. I think we’d be fools to try to apply the last conflict to the next one. That would be wrong. But we can learn from it.
How important is it that Saif Gadhafi gets a fair trial, given how his father, Moammar, was killed in custody without any due process?
To me you can’t paint all of the people of Libya with the brush of the gang that killed Gadhafi. I don’t support the killing of Gadhafi, I believe justice should prevail. However I can’t be surprised by it, either. In a moment of heat, some of them let themselves go too far. It’s not appropriate, and I’m not condoning it.
On Saif, I’m sensing that they’ve learned from that. If Libyans want to see themselves as in charge of a new country, untainted by the old regime, you can’t just take people out back and get rid of them as Gadhafi did for 42 years. They have to take him to court, they have to go through a judicial process to show they are a country that can bring justice in a credible manner.
Also, there’s a more pragmatic reason. If they want to know where the money and the other stuff is, they’re going to have to keep some people around and ask them the questions.
What’s next for you?
I’m definitely going to retire. I’ve served the Canadian Forces for 37 ½ years. I have accomplished the things I wanted to accomplish in my career, to be given the opportunity for one last operational command is something for which I’m thankful, to the chief of defence staff and NATO. As for the future, I’m going to go home and spend Christmas with my family.
Any chance you might lead a mission in Syria before you call it a career?
I can assure you, no. Unequivocally, no.
This interview has been edited and condensed.