On Harper's strategy and Trudeau's quandary

Steve Saideman parses the politics of Canada’s Mideast mission.
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October 6, 2014
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Prime Minister Stephen Harper announced Friday in Parliament that Canada will be participating in the combat mission in the Mideast to thwart ISIL/ISIS/IS (Canada is using ISIL so let's stick with that).  Members will debate the issue today.

I watched the PM give his justification/explanation and then the responses by Mulcair of the NDP, Trudeau of the Liberals and May of the Greens.  I first want to address what was especially notable in the speech before giving my take on each politician's speechifying.  Here's the resolution:

The mission is pretty much whatever everyone guessed it to be: Six CF-18s to conduct air strikes; refueling plane (and not just to sustain the Canadians but also to help fuel the other planes); and Aurora recon planes (designed for doing maritime intel, proven to be more than that during the Libyan campaign); plus support personnel.

The only possibly surprising parts were:

  • The resolution is to "confirm its confidence of a government decision" which means that the government is not asking permission (as always, my education on the nuances of this stuff is provided by Phil Lagassé).  For fans of the constitution and conventions, this means that the convention of needing parliamentary approval for combat deployments is ... dead for now.

  • The resolution has a six-month time limit. This means that we may have to re-visit all of this unless the problem is solved in six months.  Unlikely.

  • Harper said that this mission covers anywhere Canada is invited to go by the host countries.  Which means that this mission will focus on Iraq, BUT if Assad says it is OK, then Canada can operate in the Syrian skies (Assad's ability to give consent is problematic).

I will let Phil tweet/blog/whatever about the first.

I think the time limit makes sense given the context — that it makes sense to evaluate.  Plus the precedent of Libya, which had regular renewals.  The fun part is that this puts the renewal smack dab in the middle of election season.  This is NOT an accident.  I wish the government could be clearer that the mission is likely to last beyond six months, and that the six month term is mostly aimed at giving us a chance to assess the progress of the effort.

But, Assad’s approval?

Canada is the only country to make its policy contingent on Assad's assent.  The United States and the Arab countries are bombing Syria without any explicit agreement.  The European countries have restricted their efforts to Iraq.  The technical jargon I used on Twitter to describe this dependence on Assad's consent is "icky."  He is a mass murderer, genocidaire, and war criminal.  But he also controls the switches on Syria's air defenses.  Harper does not want Canadian planes to be flying in contested air space, which makes sense.  The world is an ugly place, so I cannot fault Harper on this.  Indeed, his transparency on this is surprisingly ... transparent.

Let's get to the politics of this:

Harper is doing what his allies would like.  Canada is kicking in just as it always does.  The joy of this for Harper is twofold — he gets to do something that is not NATO yet supportive of the U.S., AND he puts the opposition in a difficult spot.

This is actually easy stuff for Mulcair.  His party has a history of pacifism and has many constituents who are critical of this effort and of any Harper use of force.  That he has to pander by talking about mission creep and mission leap is understandable even if it is particularly dumb rhetoric.  The NDP has found its sound bite and sticking to it, even if there is little risk of mission creep.  The precedents that Harper has set binds him to having another vote if infantry troops were to be sent (Besides both the imperatives of budget balancing and message managing mean that Harper has no interest in putting troops on the ground). At any point in time, Canada can say: we are out of bombs or our planes are tired or we have done our share.  If Canada can leave Afghanistan early, it can certainly stop this effort when it wants.  The Norwegians and Danes reduced their efforts in Libya, so this would not be anything new.

This is really hard stuff for Trudeau.  Again, he cannot help himself, making insulting comments about the RCAF.  Yes, the planes are old, but they can do what the mission demands of them.  So, he covers himself in distraction sauce for a second day.  More problematic is my guess on the political reality — that Trudeau and the Liberals need to pry voters away from the NDP more than they need to turn Tory voters.  So, Trudeau has to be just as pacifist as the NDP.  His statement kept focusing on non-combat, which is fine if you are pacifist.  But if your party does not mind using force when it is necessary (and the Liberals repeatedly have done so in the past), just saying non-combat is not good enough.  I feel sorry for Trudeau, but he did have plenty of time to prepare for this and he could have come up with a better answer.

Elizabeth May actually had the best speech (if one drops the part where she suggests the U.S. recruited Bin Laden in Afghanistan).  Her basic point is that the road to hell is paved with good intentions and cited her opposition to the Libyan mission which did not turn out so great.

Reasonable people can disagree about this mission, as the efficacy of airstrikes greatly depends on local allies, and our local allies here are just as bit as unreliable (some more so, some less so) than our local allies in other places.  The Kosovo Liberation Army included many criminals.  The less we say about Karzai the better.  The new government of Iraq may be better than the old one, but that is a mighty low bar.  The Free Syrian Army is one out of three — not free and not much of an army.

I am ambivalent about this (unlike my stance on Iraq in 2003).  This truly is the land of lousy policy alternatives.  So, I have a great deal of sympathy for the positions of each party.  We shall see if the various parties get better scripts for today's debate.  The outcome, of course, is pre-ordained — party discipline plus majority rule means this thing will pass.