For prime minister, only grownups need apply
by Kyle Matthews
January 16, 2015
The Liberal Party of Canada has been on the defensive ever since its leader, Justin Trudeau, went off script at a Canada 2020 event in Ottawa last autumn. After delivering a keynote speech, Trudeau sat down for informal chat with Don Newman. During that chat, the Liberal leader described the international coalition to stop the Islamic State (ISIS) as “Harper’s War” and quipped that Canada shouldn’t just “whip out our CF-18s and show them how big they are.” In confronting ISIS, Trudeau argued, it would be better for Canada to mobilize its national resources to deliver aid to refugees.
While Trudeau has brought new members and donors to the Liberals, it has become evident to many outside observers that foreign policy remains his Achilles’ heel. His earlier comments on admiring the communist regime in Beijing and joking that Moscow’s meddling in Ukraine was going to accelerate because Russia didn’t win a hockey medal at the Sochi Olympics may have raised some eyebrows. But it was his comments on ISIS that have by far been the most damaging for the Liberal party.
Since October, the Liberals have stuck to the same messaging regarding what to do about ISIS. While ISIS continues to massacre religious minorities, enslave women, and turn children into child soldiers, the Liberals contend that a combat role for Canada remains a policy option best kept at arm’s length. Instead of deploying direct military action to degrade the group’s ability to terrorize and murder people, they hold that Canada should be sending humanitarian experts to the frontlines. This, despite the increasing security risk of kidnappings and the possibility of beheadings of civilians, aid workers and journalists, the likes of which have already been broadcast on YouTube.
The Liberal position is that Canada should do the “humanitarian heavy-lifting” by helping the displaced. Some, including star Liberal candidate Andrew Leslie, defended this position on television arguing that refugees, if not taken care of, would become radicalized and present a security threat in the long-run.
It is incumbent upon Canada to provide aid to the displaced. But a G7 country like ours can and should do more. The Liberal proposal is a band-aid solution, one that simply is not ambitious enough to deal with what is unraveling in Iraq, Syria, and the wider Middle East.
The immensity of the problem is there for all to see. It is easy for a government to send a few cheques to UN agencies and NGOs to help civilians living on the periphery of conflict. Easy, but insufficient. Yes, helping the displaced is of critical importance but it will do nothing to prevent the future killing and displacement of civilians. Achieving that objective will involve taking military action against ISIS.
Humanitarian aid is not a substitute for actual physical protection. Many people in Iraq and Syria are only alive today because of the air power deployed against ISIS in the last few months by the U.S.-led coalition. The Kurds in the Syrian city of Kobani and the minority group known as the Yezidis living near Mount Sinjar in Iraq are a testament to this fact. Just as humanitarian aid alone would not have stopped the Holocaust or the Rwandan genocide, we are reminded that sometimes there are grave occasions when military force is needed to stop an organized slaughter of human beings.
In the end of the year At Issue panel on the CBC’s flagship program The National, journalist Chantal Hebert picked Trudeau’s position on ISIS as one of the worst political moves of 2014. “He put himself at odds with thoughtful people on foreign policy, like Bob Rae and Lloyd Axworthy, and that’s never a good place for federal leaders to be” she noted. Hebert then argued, “I don’t think that it is a total coincidence, you know, that Liberal support softened after because he did not walk into the frame of a prime minister on that day.”
The Liberals hope to convince Canadians they are up to the task of running the country less than 10 months from now. Reversing their policy on ISIS would be a good way of re-establishing public faith and foreign policy credibility to a party that traditionally took principled stands when it came to interdicting mass atrocity crimes. “Hope and hard work” is a catchy rallying call but sadly will not be enough to protect those living in fear across the Middle East.
Kyle Matthews is a fellow with the Canadian Defence and Foreign Affairs Institute and previously worked as a diplomat with the UN High Commissioner for Refugees. Twitter.com/kylecmatthews