In The Media

Harper is hyping the threat we face from the Islamic State: Editorial

by Editor

The Toronto Star
May 18, 2015

Any threat Canada faces from the Islamic State falls well below the global scourge the Conservative government is fond of invoking.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper never tires of playing up the dire threat the Islamic State poses to this country. On a recent morale-boosting visit with Canadian troops in Kuwait, he spared no rhetoric developing that theme.

The Islamic State is an “extraordinarily dangerous enemy,” he said. “An evil that knows no borders” that “will spread like the plague” if left unchecked. Its violent leaders dream of leading a “global jihad, an orgy of terrorist violence around the world,” and “a war of enslavement and extermination,” he said. They would like nothing more than to “despoil our home and native land.”

It was rousing stuff, calculated to play well with Harper’s military audience and with the Conservative party’s grassroots as the country heads to the polls in the fall. The Conservatives hope it will give them a leg up over the New Democrats and Liberals who don’t share their enthusiasm for Mideast combat missions. The government has also invoked the Islamic State threat to justify legislation granting our spy agencies sweeping new powers.

But basically, a lot of it is hype.

As a new report from the Canadian Defence and Foreign Affairs Institute makes clear, the threat Canada truly faces falls well below the global scourge Harper is fond of invoking.

“Canada’s most vital interests — its security and prosperity — are not threatened,” says the report by Thomas Juneau, an assistant professor at the University of Ottawa’s graduate school of public and international affairs. Unlike people in the Middle East, Canadians needn’t fear “spillover in the form of massive refugee flows, border violence and large-scale infiltration by violent elements.”

While the jihadists have targeted us, only a few dozen Canadians have travelled to Iraq or Syria to train with extremists and only “a handful” are likely to return home with bad intentions. The Islamic State “does pose a threat,” Juneau concludes, “but not an existential one that would warrant a massive commitment of resources.”

That reasoned, corrective judgment from an academic who firmly endorses Canada’s limited military involvement in Iraq and Syria as “the least bad alternative” is worth bearing in mind as the election finger-wagging heats up.

The report also suggests that Canada’s broader Mideast policy is drifting under this government. While buying into American military policy, “Canada does not have its own strategy” to defeat the jihadists and isn’t playing the role it could be in the region generally, Juneau writes.

The Harper government is putting nothing like the resources it should into Mideast diplomacy, to help resolve the underlying causes of instability in Iraq and war in Syria. A political vacuum in those countries has enabled the jihadist insurgency, Juneau argues. Nor do we have a coherent plan to address the underlying Sunni Muslim sense of alienation toward Bashar Assad’s Alawite-dominated regime in Damascus and the Shia-led government in Baghdad that has fed this conflict.

Canada is the only Group of Eight country that doesn’t have a permanent ambassador in Iraq, and we need to ramp up our diplomatic presence there, Juneau writes, to develop better political, military and business ties. He also favours doing more to train Iraqi troops because local forces are the key to neutralizing the jihadists.

As for Syria, he argues that Ottawa should step up its ties to and support for the opposition to Assad’s regime, for non-governmental organizations and for a peace process. That would include providing non-lethal support such as communications gear, night vision equipment and rations to “palatable factions” in the opposition. He also argues that Ottawa needs to better position itself to have some input in an eventual political process to end the civil war.

None of this is happening now. Canada’s “actions — notably its diplomatic absence from Baghdad and its relative disengagement from Syria where it does not recognize the opposition — suggest a certain passivity towards the critical importance of achieving long-term political solutions,” he concludes.

Once again, Juneau is largely supportive of Canadian engagement, and indeed calls for more.

Even so, the sobering picture that emerges from this thought-provoking report is of a fear-mongering Conservative government with a lightweight foreign policy that approaches the war against the Islamic State mostly through a domestic prism, largely for partisan gain. That’s a climbdown from the days when Canada walked taller in the region as a peacekeeper, and aimed higher.

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