Friday, March 25, 2016
Den Tandt: War Of Words over "War"
Written by Michael Den Tandt, The National Post
Canada is not at war with the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant. Of course not. It’s a police action. A lawenforcement and publicsafety issue, to address a pernicious threat, one being met with utmost seriousness by the federal government, which has applied a range of remedies across the span of policy, without resorting to fearmongering that would … where was I?
“A war is something that can be won by one side or the other and there is no path for ISIL to actually win against the West,” Prime Minister Justin Trudeau told the CBC Wednesday. “They want to destabilize, they want to strike fear. They need to be stamped out.” Stamped out! Excellent wording, that. Foreign Affairs Minister Stéphane Dion calls it a fight. This is progress.
But they’re both wrong, demonstrably and clearly wrong, in saying it’s not war. It is precisely that.
Let’s dispense first with the too-easy cliché that Trudeau and his Liberals are “soft on terror.” They’re not. No government in its right mind would be or could be, given events. This is why, as reported by the Ottawa Citizen’s Ian MacLeod, it is moving on several fronts behind the scenes to block terrorists before they strike again in Canada, including via information-sharing enabled by the former government’s Bill C-51. Good. That much is reassuring.
Trudeau’s contention that the new anti-ISIL mission launched by his government, even sans CF-18 fighters, can provide invaluable help to the U.S.-led coalition, is well taken. It’s true that other countries, especially the United States, have a corner on air power. It’s also true that Canadian soldiers are good at training allied ground forces in hostile environments, having acquired this skill in Afghanistan. And it’s equally true that military power alone cannot “defeat” an enemy such as ISIL in a 21st-century, asymmetrical insurgent conflict that collapses and conflates previous categories of warfare. OK. But no one ever said otherwise, that I know of.
And it’s all beside the point on the question of what is, and is not, war.
The conflict with ISIL is war in the sense that French Prime Minister Manuel Valls used the term after Tuesday’s bombings in Brussels. Valls said this: “We are at war.”
France is not at war in a Napoleonic sense. There are no clear battle lines. The French Foreign Legion is not (yet) poised to move in great numbers into northern Iraq. Yet France is at war, because the seat of its society and one of the shining beacons of global society, Paris, was attacked and is under threat of further attack. Brussels has been attacked, no doubt because of its symbolic heft as the European capital. Europe — the very idea of a free society, multilingual, multicultural and borderless — is shaken to its foundations by the inflow of refugees, partially (though only partially) caused by ISIL. All that makes this a war.
Ah, but ISIL is a non-state actor, says the technician. It’s not “war” because one side can never win. Calling it war gives ISIL too much credit! They’re unhinged, degenerates and sociopaths to be viewed with contempt, not elevated to the status of combatants. And that’s true, as far as it goes. Of course they’re unhinged. Based on a literal reading of ancient prophecy, these men seek to catalyze a global conflagration that will bring about their own mass death and ultimately Armageddon. To say they’re unhinged really doesn’t cover it.
But let us be clear about a couple of things. First, ISIL holds territory. It has a capital city, Raqqa. That makes it different from al- Qaida, which never did that, rather choosing to infest failed states and cling to them parasitically. As I and many others have written, the fact of ISIL’s holding land and administering institutions of government, albeit in demented and criminal fashion, is its principal drawing card. Land gives the selfanointed caliph, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, legitimacy, by radical Islamist lights.
Therefore the land he controls must be taken back. The peshmerga and Iraqi ground forces doing that, at great cost to themselves, believe they’re at war, one suspects. It would be astonishing, indeed, if Canadian special forces risking their lives to help them don’t feel the same way.
In 2002, the Liberal government launched the Afghan mission against a ragtag band of illiterate opium farmers who fought with looped-up Soviet-era artillery shells buried in roadways. Yet most Canadians, particularly the estimated 30,000 soldiers who served there, likely now consider that to have been war.
It’s an absurd descent into technocracy for the PM and his top foreign policy hand to suggest the conflict with ISIL, which poses a far greater threat to Canadian citizens than the Taliban ever did, is anything but.