In The Media

Iraq mission extension should have been a free vote

by George Petrolekas

April 1, 2014

The debate on the Iraq mission extension and expansion shaped up to be an exercise in pre-electoral posturing. While merits and demerits of the mission entered into the dialogue, they were eclipsed by efforts to stake out electoral ground.

In the opening salvos of the three party leaders, only one fact held true—that there is no greater duty in the House of Commons than to soberly deliberate before Canada's troops are dispatched to a foreign war. There was little evidence of that duty.

NDP Leader Tom Mulcair began his response to say that the prime minister had lied to the House about Canada's role, and connected Harper's position in 2003 to today's debate as somehow being the fulfillment of a dream to get militarily involved in the Middle East. Justin Trudeau was not much better.

Both painted it as "Harper's War" knowing full well that though the PM approved Canada's participation he is not the author of the overall effort.

And for all the discussion on exit strategies, no alternatives were presented; Mulcair's exit strategy is to bring the troops home.

The strategy was articulated by United States President Barack Obama in September and nations signed on to the coalition formed to combat the Islamic State (also known as ISIS and ISIL).

And for good reason. The list of IS atrocities is so long one barely knows which to mention first: its beheadings, its crucifixions, its enslavements or its inspiration to others.

These are not simply war crimes, but crimes against humanity. There are indeed other movements that are equally bad, but none that approach the Islamic State's codified evil made possible by its pretensions to be a state. It is an ideology that can be defeated, but the first step must be to eliminate the state structure that supports the ideology and whose very existence is what draws others to it.

The Obama strategy presupposed an air campaign to first arrest the spread of IS and to degrade its capabilities over time. The strategy sought to destroy the economic infrastructure that supports IS and halt the unchecked military expansion we saw last year.

The air campaign itself would not defeat the group, but would buy time for local security forces, the Iraqi army and the peshmerga to be re-equipped and retrained to eventually begin the ground campaign to dislodge the Islamic State from the villages, towns and cities it holds.

That may indeed be an overly optimistic strategy and certainly, as President Obama indicated, a strategy that will not be measured in months. That has been known from the start.

Rather, a real debate would articulate: if not this option, what better options are there? Can IS be contained through non-military means? Can it be starved of funds and support by other means? Is there a way to speed the goals of dismantling IS or a better way to mitigate its effects on our youth and other adherents?

And if the litmus test for Canadian participation in any international mission is the approval of the United Nations, does that mean that future Canadian foreign policy and defence initiatives are constrained by a Chinese or Russian veto in the Security Council? Or if NATO sanction is important, are we saying that NATO has a global remit and is a parallel or counter to the UN?

Canadians would also want to know how assistance to Yazidis trapped on Mount Sinjar last August, or the four-month air campaign to prevent the Islamic State from taking the Kurdish outpost in Kobani was never considered by anyone as somehow helping Bashar al-Assad. Even the UN's envoy to Syria, Stefan di Mistura, argued that the world had to come to Kobani's aid.

The prime minister, however, did not do himself or the country any favours in presenting the motion as a government motion, ensuring debate would be staked out on party lines.

Two years ago in an analogous debate in the United Kingdom over British participation in Syrian airstrikes, the debate was a free vote and citizens had a chance to hear from all MPs. The debate was well considered and well argued. Such a free vote in Canada would have revealed that there are likely Liberals who would have supported the extension of the mission and perhaps some NDP as well, just as there are likely some Conservatives who have questions on the mission's expansion into Syria.

A free vote would have gone a great way to assure Canadians that their Parliament does indeed recognize its utmost duty when questions of war are before it. These questions, unlike others often before the House, do not have to be fought on uniquely partisan grounds. It would inspire confidence in our members of Parliament, who often parrot party positions when it is clear they don't believe in those positions themselves. The fact that 34 MPs, 11 per cent of the House, did not show up to vote does not inspire confidence either.

George Petrolekas is a fellow with the Canadian Defence and Foreign Affairs Institute and on the board of the Conference of Defence Associations Institute. He has served in Bosnia, Afghanistan and with NATO and has been an adviser to senior NATO commanders.

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