Canada might be “back,” as the meme adopted by Justin Trudeau in the early days of his prime ministership has it. As I argued in Part 1 of this blog post, there is much to welcome in the new foreign policy tone set by the government. However, on one international policy file, Canada indeed seems to be “back,” but in ways that are more problematic—Canada’s response to the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), also known as Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS).
Cabinet will shortly begin to deliberate on the future of Canada’s contribution to the Global Coalition to Counter ISIL – the broad coalition of over 60 states taking coordinated action against ISIL, which includes a 22-country military operation, including 13 countries engaging in airstrikes in Iraq and Syria. The key question for Cabinet will be to grapple with the implications of Trudeau’s policy on ISIL, which has been the target of considerable criticism, partly for its incoherence and partly for its lack of seriousness.
The lack of seriousness was first on display in October 2014. Trudeau’s crude locker-room humour, when he criticized the Harper Conservatives for “trying to whip out our CF-18s and show them how big they are,” revealed nicely where his head was at on the very sobering issue of how to deal with ISIL’s violent extremism.
At the time, members of his own party lined up to criticize his refusal to endorse a military mission against ISIL. Roméo Dallaire, Ruby Dhalla, Ujjal Dosanjh, Jean Lapierre, and Byron Wilfert went on the record to criticize his opposition to joining Canada’s allies in this fight. Even Lloyd Axworthy, foreign minister in Jean Chrétien’s government and no fan of “hard power,” joined in, claiming that ISIL “had to be whacked and whacked good.”
In March and April 2015, when Operation Impact – Canada’s military contribution to the Global Coalition – was renewed and expanded, Trudeau began promising that if a Liberal government were elected in October, it would end the CF-18 bombing strikes, arguing that Canada should focus on training for what he argued was a “civil war” in Iraq.
However, he refused to indicate precisely why he was promising to withdraw the CF-18s. When he was asked by the CBC’s Terry Milewski in June 2015, “If you don’t want to bomb a group as ghastly as ISIS, when would you ever support real military action?” Trudeau quickly dismissed him with the retort: “Terry, that’s a nonsensical question; you know that very well,” a deft but entirely bogus dodge.
Since 4 November, Trudeau has had numerous opportunities to take a sober second look at his promise. The Paris attacks of 13 November and the killing of seven Canadians by jihadist attacks in Burkina Faso and Jakarta, Indonesia in January 2016 has now made the nominal reason for the withdrawal – “we promised the electorate we would, and we now have to keep our promise” – sound silly. Those attacks could have provided a face-saving opportunity for the government to shift Canada’s policy, allowing it to make the perfectly reasonable argument that policy on fighting ISIL was shifting in response to changed circumstances (and one that public opinion would have supported, according to the polls).
Yet, despite the criticism, the prime minister continued to refuse to offer any explanation for his policy. The Globe and Mail described it as a “logic-free” policy, for no justification has ever been publicly offered for withdrawing the CF-18s. This was particularly true after the Paris attacks, when other allies announced that they were maintaining, or increasing, the military assets deployed against ISIL.
Rather, whenever he was asked for an explanation, Trudeau would simply dodge the question. There is no better example than his interview with Fareed Zakaria at Davos in January 2016. Zakaria’s question about the CF-18 withdrawal was blunt: “Why? What’s the logic behind this?” The prime minister chose not to give a straight answer; instead he just repeated his talking points about Canada’s putative “comparative advantage” in military training (though the hesitations in his response strongly suggests that even he was not entirely convinced by his own arguments).
So what is the logic behind the CF-18 withdrawal?
One possibility is that the prime minister really does believe that air power has no significant impact on the battlefield against ISIL, and that Canada – and by implication, Canada’s other allies – should leave the fight to what he has called “local people…on the ground.” However, given who is briefing Trudeau on foreign policy, it seems hardly credible that he is not aware of the crucial role of coalition air power. For example, when Iraqi security forces successfully retook Ramadi in December 2014, they were assisted by 630 air strikes by coalition aircraft.
Trudeau repeatedly asserts that Afghanistan shows that air power is less important than local ground forces. Yet Afghan’s national security forces grievously suffered at the hands of the Taliban throughout 2015 precisely because of a lack of air power after the end of the International Security Assistance Force mission there in December 2014 – a fact he surely has been told.
In other words, given that Trudeau must know about the key role of air power against ISIL, the only other plausible explanation is one that numerous observers have already suggested: the prime minister is withdrawing the CF-18s because he has a fundamental antipathy towards the use of force in Canadian foreign policy. While of course he is unlikely to ever admit it openly, such an antipathy is certainly suggested by everything that he has said and done since he became Liberal leader.
Once the CF-18s are withdrawn, Canada’s military contribution will be greatly diminished. It is true that it will likely be somewhat more robust than the purely humanitarian role advocated by Trudeau during his time in opposition – the policy that Stephen Harper dismissed in August 2015 as little more than “dropping aid on dead people.”
If the CF-18s are withdrawn, and if there is no new combat role to replace them, Canada’s contribution will then be entirely non-lethal, in the sense that Canadians will no longer be taking the fight directly to the enemy. That heavy lifting—the defeat of the enemy by actually seeking to kill them, disperse them, and expel them from their territory—will be left to others: either local forces on the ground or Canada’s other military allies in the Global Coalition.
In short, Trudeau’s ISIL policy suggests that Canada may be “back” in a less laudable way: “back” to being a country reluctant to use its armed forces. Trudeau’s reluctance to use force is certainly reminiscent of the Liberal government of Jean Chrétien, which had such an antipathy to the use of force that it would often refuse to even acknowledge when the CAF used force: for example, by purposely hiding a lethal engagement between Canadian and Croat forces in the Medak Pocket in 1993; purposely trying to keep the deployment of Canada’s special operations forces to Afghanistan a secret in 2001; and not even acknowledging the record-breaking performance of CAF snipers in Afghanistan in 2001–2002.
If antipathy to the use of force is indeed a prime driver under Trudeau fils, this certainly would be very much in keeping with the dominant self-perception that Canada is a “peaceable kingdom,” a peacekeeper rather than a war fighter. In a revealing 2008 poll commissioned by the Department of National Defence, an overwhelming number of Canadians expressed the view that the proper purpose of the Canadian Armed Forces was not to use force in world politics, but to engage in humanitarian operations such as disaster relief. Indeed, when a focus group in the same poll was asked about its image of the CAF, one participant responded: “I do not picture a Canadian soldier carrying guns.”
The prime minister has given every indication that he too does not picture a Canadian soldier carrying guns. If that is so, then Canada may indeed be “back.”