In The Media

Mr. Trudeau’s touchy-feely approach to war

by Roy Rempel

February 9, 2016

In announcing his decision to end Canada’s frontline military role in the fight against ISIL, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has implied that his government’s approach is based on “reason”.

“The lethal enemy of barbarism isn’t hatred. It’s reason,” Trudeau said. “And the people terrorized by ISIL every day don’t need our vengeance. They need our help.”

Leaving aside the rather strange assertion that anyone ever suggested that people terrorized by ISIL need our “vengeance”, let’s ask a question: Is it really a reasoned approach that lies at the root of the new government’s policy on ISIL?

It was back in October 2014 when Mr. Trudeau first rejected the proposition that Canada should participate in the fight against ISIL, and he did it rather flippantly: “Why aren’t we talking more about the kind of humanitarian aid that Canada can and must be engaged in, rather than trying to whip out our CF-18s and show them how big they are?”

That statement was emotive — off the cuff. It certainly wasn’t a “reasoned” position. Instead, it drew on a deep and seemingly visceral anti-military orientation which the prime minister appears to hold. Even when confronted with a group such as ISIL, that anti-military orientation has shown itself to be stronger than all the evidence about the group’s activities, its fundamental character, the threat it represents to the international community and to Canada, and what it will actually take to stop it.

To be sure, the government has sought to argue that, despite its termination of an active military role, Canada will remain in the fight. However, its role will now be a “non-combat” one. Canadian aid to the region will increase. We will continue surveillance activities and air-to-air refuelling.

While not one of these measures is, on its own, a bad one, they’re all clearly driven by a primary directive that states Canada now can only serve in a supporting capacity. We can refuel the bombers and help select the targets — but we can’t do the bombing ourselves. Apart from a vague assertion that the new policy “is what Canada is all about”, there appears to be limited logic behind the shift.

The government has stated that, in lieu of fighter aircraft, Canada will instead dedicate additional resources “to supporting coalition partners at various headquarters”. We also will expand our training role with the Iraqi security forces. However, such an expanded role raises questions about who exactly we’ll be training.

Under the strategy announced by the Harper government in 2014, Canada’s training role was focused on Kurdish forces in northern Iraq. There were several reasons for this, including the fact that Kurdish forces were a known quantity. We have reasonable confidence that the Kurdish troops being trained today will not represent a threat to the West, or to Canada, in the future. That same assurance does not always exist with respect to many other factions in Iraq or Syria.

Iraq’s growing sectarianism is a very serious concern. Iranian influence in Iraq’s Shiite community has expanded significantly. Shiite militias, trained and supported by Iran, play a pivotal and often dominant role in the fight against ISIL in that country. While U.S. and coalition training efforts are nominally focused on training the formal ‘Iraqi security forces’, it’s not at all clear where the loyalties of these forces will lie in the future.

Policy choices in a region that is often bereft of many ‘good guys’ are always difficult — but did the government even consider this issue before announcing its decision on training this week? In the government’s rush to agree to anything that avoids a frontline military role for Canada, practical considerations seem to have been given short shrift.

Recently, President Barack Obama’s defense secretary, Ashton Carter, described the war against ISIL as a “fight of civilization”. As part of that fight he called on all Western countries to do more. All of Canada’s closest allies have responded to that call as part of an effort to “thicken” the air campaign against ISIL. Until this week, Canada was an important contributor to that effort. No longer.

Given the new prime minister’s aversion to any active military role for Canada, more such decisions seem likely. Indeed, Mr. Trudeau’s underlying attitude towards the role and purpose of the Canadian Armed Forces may well imprint itself on the pending defence policy review.

It remains to be seen whether Canada’s defence policy under Mr. Trudeau ultimately will be governed by a rational analysis of the threats and risks which confront this country — or whether the prime minister’s emotive attitudes will continue to carry the day.

Roy Rempel is a Fellow of the Canadian Global Affairs Institute and served as defence advisor to Prime Minister Stephen Harper.

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