Today MPs will vote on the Conservative government’s plan to deploy fighter jets and over 600 Canadian Forces personnel to the expanded war in the Middle East. More than a decade after lamenting Canada’s failure to formally join George W. Bush’s “Coalition of the Willing,” Harper finally gets to take Canada to war in Iraq.
In recent days, the usual pundit-hawks of Canadian politics have reached a fever pitch in their support of Harper’s plan for Canada to participate in the new US-led bombing of Iraq. Their moral indignation always dutifully laser-focused on wherever the Pentagon is pointing its guns, the pundit-hawks never have to account for the evident disasters left in the wake of the past Canadian military interventions they championed in Afghanistan, Haiti and Libya. They are hit-and-run drivers who never even look in their rearview mirror.
Justin Trudeau has come under particularly sharp attack for his quip that Harper is “trying to whip out our CF-18s and show how big they are.” Trudeau’s off-the-cuff joke is hardly worth discussing, but his overall flakiness in responding to Harper’s war plans should be of real concern. When Stephen Harper first announced a Canadian troop deployment to Iraq, the Liberals called for an emergency debate in the House of Commons. When the debate came, Trudeau was AWOL. The NDP, in contrast, refused to give Harper carte blanche on this new Iraq mission. Until late last week, Trudeau seemed ambivalent and completely uncertain about what to do on Iraq.
While the Liberals have waffled on Harper’s new war, the NDP have consistently questioned the government’s plans. Tom Mulcair has badly shown up Trudeau. That said, parliamentary debate on this war and on Canadian foreign policy is remarkably narrow and restricted. There are some very basic points not being made.
The war is blatantly illegal. It’s remarkable and somewhat terrifying how little attention has been paid to this fact. The Obama administration’s legal rationale is laughable, at one point even “claiming authority to wage war on Isis based on the Iraq War Resolution from 2002”. In other words, they cited as legal justification the vote that authorized the 2003 war, which pretty much everyone other than Dick Cheney now concedes was illegal and based on phony pretexts.
Furthermore, the new air war is unlikely to defeat ISIS or to make the situation better in the short term, and may very likely make the situation in the region even worse. The pundit-hawks insist that “we must do something,” seemingly without ever seriously considering that “something” might be anything other than airstrikes, or that “we” might not be the best ones to be intervening.
It could be argued that other players like the Iranians, and several Shia militias including the Hezbollah, are better placed to intervene to help defeat ISIS. The US’ hostile stance toward Iran, the Hezbollah, and the Kurdistan Workers Party, however, means that Washington discards potential solutions to the crisis in Iraq and Syria by refusing to accept these regional parties as legitimate.
ISIS did not emerge ex nihilo. It is a result of events that followed the 2003 US invasion of Iraq, which smashed the Iraqi state and resulted in total chaos in that country. Another factor in the rise of ISIS is the weakening of the Syrian state, in which American allies such as Turkey and the Gulf states have played a big part due to their insistence on removing Assad by any means necessary. ISIS, no matter how brutal its crimes, must be understood as a political phenomenon.
There no evidence that the US is willing or able to really change the course that has led to this crisis.
Fighting alongside Canada and other Western countries will be several of the Gulf dictatorships. The Harper government’s increasingly close alignment with these Gulf states also brings into question its wider and long-term political vision for the Middle East. Gulf countries such as Saudi Arabia are notorious for exporting radicalism for their own geo-political purposes, and so they couldn’t be more unqualified to lead the charge against ISIS. The repressive Gulf states are the home of counter-revolution in the Arab world. How can anyone be convinced that Canada can team up with them to help foster democracy in the region?
It is not simply a matter of temporary alliance with the Gulf countries. The Canadian government’s warm relations with the sheikdoms and its virulent support of Israel amply demonstrate its narrow vision for the Arab world, and this campaign against ISIS –– whether successful or not –– will not mark a departure from this myopic vision.
Even US Vice President Joe Biden conceded that “allies” such as Turkey and the Gulf states were in large part to blame for the rise of ISIS due to their reckless intervention in Syria’s civil war. Though these candid remarks by the VP were largely reported as just another of Biden’s characteristic “gaffes,” there’s a hint in the admissions. If the US and Canada insist on “doing something,” then they should start by bringing their own regional allies in line, rather than arming them and providing political cover for their crimes.
The plight of the Kurds in Syria in particular has been cited as a reason to support the US bombing. Instead of engaging in war, we could be demanding Turkey cease its criminalization of Kurdish political and military forces such as the PKK. Why has Turkey’s border been open to fighters and guns that end up with ISIS, but not to Kurdish militias battling these extremists?
In recent years, there has been little to no actual discussion of the extent of Canadian military and economic interests in the Middle East dictatorships. That’s why today’s vote in Parliament should not be the end of the conversation, but the beginning of an overdue debate in this country. If we limit ourselves to the partisan thrust and parry over war while ignoring these realities, the joke’s on us.