Michael Den Tandt outlines here a great argument for why the Liberal Majority should reconsider its withdrawal of RCAF CF-18s from the US-led coalition against ISIS in Iraq and Syria.
|An RCAF CF-18 flies over Iraq during a sortie on OP IMPACT. November 7, 2015. Photo: CAF Combat Camera, OP IMPACT, DND|
There is a straightforward way for the Liberal government to get beyond the tangle in which it now finds itself over its pledge to pull Canada’s CF-18 fighters from the air war against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant. That would be to break its promise, make a U-turn and keep them in the fight. This is not only the responsible thing to do; it is the politically smart thing to do, given the other options.
Since the Oct. 19 federal election, the debate has raged. Throughout the back and forth, the claims and counterclaims, Royal Canadian Air Force jets have continued to contribute to the U.S.-led campaign by, yes, dropping bombs on enemy targets. Late last week, Canadian forces took part in a battle that involved CF-18s and special forces ground troops.
In a year-end interview with the Huffington Post, Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan committed to withdrawing the fighters within six months, though a parliamentary resolution calls for the air-combat mission to end in March. The reason for not pulling out immediately, Sajjan has said, is that the government does not wish to contribute to a loss of capacity for its allies. Translation: The CF-18s are making a valuable contribution to the overall effort, albeit a small one. If this were not the case, withdrawing them would make no difference to anyone and would have occurred already.
The arguments for keeping the CF-18s in the fight, or not, fall loosely into three groupings: tactical/strategic, philosophical/moral and political. In every case, based on a careful and fair-minded reading of the facts, the case for keeping the previous Conservative government’s policy in place is unassailable.
In military terms, simply put, the Liberals in crafting their policy and sticking to it doggedly have misunderstood the role of aerial combat in modern warfare. Repeatedly, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has spoken dismissively of “dropping bombs,” as though it’s indiscriminate carpet-bombing of residential areas, like something out of the Second World War or Vietnam.
That assumption is false. In this campaign, which even now is modest in scope compared with the rate of missions flown in both Gulf wars and in Yugoslavia in the late 1990s, air power is being used precisely by the allies to degrade and destroy ISIL’s capabilities and allow allied local ground troops to take back territory more easily.
To dismiss the air war as indiscriminate “combat” is shallow in the extreme. On the contrary, the aerial campaign is arguably the last, best hope for the North Atlantic Treaty Organization powers to avoid sending in their own ground troops in large numbers. It is an alternative to a ground war – not a necessary prelude to one. U.S. President Barack Obama, a lifelong pacifist, and French President François Hollande, a socialist, are not war hawks. They are advancing this strategy because they can see no other way of defeating ISIL, short of all-out war.
The philosophical and moral arguments essentially resolve into a discussion of failed foreign involvements in various Middle Eastern and South Asian wars extending centuries back. Many Canadians wonder what was achieved by 12 years of war in Afghanistan. The quagmire in Iraq and Syria, it is often noted, has its roots in president George W. Bush’s failed U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003. Gen. Colin Powell’s famous admonition, “if you break it, you own it,” went unheeded. The result has been one catastrophe after another, one of which was the rise of al-Qaida in Iraq, which metastasized into ISIL. Yes. Point understood and accepted.
The fact remains that 2015 is not 2003. In 2003, Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, beyond being an annoying blowhard and a demented tyrant to his people, threatened no one beyond Iraq’s borders. He had no weapons of mass destruction. Had he had them, he had no will to use them.
ISIL’s self-anointed caliph, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, is no Saddam. He’s something much worse. He and his jihadists believe — and this is not opinion, but fact, available to anyone with stomach enough to do the research — that they are warriors for God on a sacred mission to bring about the end of the world. They believe that in the interim, it is their sacred obligation to wipe out all other iterations of Islam, re-introduce slavery and extend their caliphate worldwide. And they pose, as has been demonstrated repeatedly now, a clear and present danger to every pluralistic society, including Canada’s. Pearsonian Liberalism would opt for engagement.
That leaves the political argument, which is this: As long as withdrawing the CF-18s remains government policy, because it is incoherent, it will be a thorn in its side and a fundraising tool for the Conservatives. A flip-flop would cause short-term bruising. Longer term, it would validate the Liberals’ pledge to base policy on evidence, not ideology. And it would help establish them as responsible managers, rather than wishful thinkers.