Published by Michael Den Tandt, National Post
February 9, 2016
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s revamped military mission in Iraq — because he wears it now, for good or ill — is neither cowardly appeasement, as the Conservatives allege, or a perilous escalation, as New Democrats would have you believe. But of the two themes, the second is closer to the mark.
As is the custom with Canadian military ventures, clarity and directness vanished or were non-existent from the start. The Conservatives’ soon-to-be-former combat mission, fronted by six Royal Canadian Air Force CF-18 fighter-bombers, was never as robust or aggressive as they or their critics let on. The effort unveiled Monday, with its tripling of the special forces contingent from 69 to 207, will be far more combative — that is to say, risky for those who will carry it out — than the PM’s swords-into-ploughshares rhetoric suggests.
This isn’t to say the new mission is wrong-headed. On the contrary: It appears to be robust internationalism, backed up with lethal force, of a kind Canada hasn’t engaged in since the final pullout from Afghanistan in 2014.
The irony is that politics prevents any of the warring tribes in the House of Commons from saying so.
This is, more than anything else, a replay of 2005, when then-prime minister Paul Martin and then-defence chief Rick Hillier conceived of a multi-pronged military and humanitarian project for Canada in Afghanistan that would clear away any cobwebs left by this country’s non-participation in president George W. Bush’s catastrophic invasion of Iraq in 2003.
That wasn’t the Kandahar mission’s tactical purpose, obviously, but it provided the context. We didn’t do that for you (thank God), the Martin government was saying to Washington, but we can do this for you, and this is both better, and more difficult.
The crack to be papered over in the current case, of course, is the withdrawal of Canada’s CF-18s from the air war in Iraq and Syria, which happens in two weeks, despite the Liberal government still not having managed to articulate why. In their disquisitions about this the PM and his ministers have tied themselves in one rhetorical knot after another, apparently out of a desire to avoid saying the wrong thing, or embarrassing their Obama administration allies. In the process they’ve sustained far more damage than they would have had they been more blunt from the get-go.
If there is a rationale for withdrawing the fighters (beyond that this was a campaign promise), as near as I can figure it, it is as follows: First, the carnage in northern Iraq and Syria, the emergence of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant itself, are primarily an American responsibility. ISIL, formerly al-Qaida in Iraq, formerly members of Saddam Hussein’s Sunni praetorian guard, would not now exist had the Iraqi dictator been left to rot. “If you break it, you own it,” General Colin Powell told his commander-in-chief before the invasion. That was true. Therefore, the American military should be at the sharp end in wiping out ISIL.
The second reason, now coming to the fore with details on the new mission: If Ottawa is tripling the special forces component, boosting overall troops deployed from 650 to 830, and spending a total of $1.6 billion in the region over three years, the cost has to come from somewhere. The PM alluded to this Monday in French, in answer to a question from reporters: “In any mission, there are choices to make. We can’t do everything.” Like Reason #1, this is laced with political pitfalls, which may be why Trudeau mentioned it only in passing. Is the government placing nickels and dimes above preserving human life? The direct answer is that resources are finite and no political party in Ottawa is calling for increased defence spending (though they should).
Finally to a third reason, related to the first two: The Trudeau government is keen to put its own stamp on foreign policy. It wishes to brand itself, domestically and internationally, as a government more interested in helping the needy than obliterating the wicked, to put it simply. Therefore it symbolically sets down Thor’s hammer, the CF-18s, and extends more helping hands, earning it kudos from agencies such as UNICEF and CARE Canada, while also throwing enough new ground muscle into the fight to appease the Pentagon.
This makes a certain kind of sense, from a Liberal political perspective, as it puts them squarely in the centre of the spectrum, taking shots from both left and right.
The wrinkle and the great risk in this, for Trudeau and his government, is precisely that it is so symbolic. For all the Harper government’s vaunted bellicosity, six CF-18s formed a relatively small hammer, in the context of the broader war, and their pilots were not routinely at risk of being shot at or blown up. This changes now. The risk of casualties has at least tripled. Aid requires transport and protection, all of it vulnerable to attack. That is the news here, not the CF-18s. In a modest but deliberate way, Canada is stepping back to war.