Four days before the Paris attacks, at a NATO Association of Canada conference in Ottawa, I was approached over coffee by a gentleman from the US Embassy, who told me in a Meaningful Tone that the US Government was very concerned about the implications for border security of the Canadian Government’s stated intent to admit 25,000 Syrian refugees before the end of 2015.
I wondered vaguely why of about 80 people in the room he had chosen me to unburden himself to, until noticing a couple of hours later that the Name Tag Fairy had written ‘Columnist, Ottawa Citizen’ on mine. So that explains that (disclaimer: I’m not, I write free-lance). I suppose I should feel apologetic for having unwittingly false-flagged him but in diplomacy as in anything else, you pays your money and you takes your chances. The US – or at least some of its agencies, almost certainly a known subset of them – is Concerned. Presumably, the message will have been and continue to be relayed at Higher Levels. It was only to be expected, and one response will be to say, ‘the Americans are being paranoid again’, but it ought at least to be heard.
The US is no doubt concerned, and more so since last Friday’s attacks. In the world of counter-terrorism, there is generally more that is uncertain than certain, and what is important for the Canadian government (whether it knows it or not, but if it doesn’t it is going to have to learn quickly), is not the realities of the concern but the perception, because when the elephant reacts on its perceptions, it is more than just the sensibilities of the mouse that get squished. We have experienced virtual border closures since 9/11 and whether they are justified or not they are very serious affairs about which we can generally do very little.
There is nothing wrong with bringing in 25,000 Syrian refugees. Far from it. We need to do our share in alleviating this crisis and if we can welcome more, then we ought to. The real issue is the pace, and the question of whether the Government is needlessly and/or recklessly binding itself to a hasty promise made in the heat of an election campaign.
(Personally, I can’t actually imagine a better way to instantly radicalize 25,000 people from practically anywhere than to deposit them onto Canadian army bases – in Saskatchewan or anywhere else – in the dead of winter, but one way or another their needs would be taken care of.)
The problem is balancing speed with security, while maintaining confidence and managing the alliance between Canada and the USA. In terms of Syrian refugees, the Paris attacks reinforced that, though there may indeed be radicals among the refugees – anything is possible when you reach those numbers – the threat of scapegoating all of them is far greater. The other thing the attacks showed is that no matter how efficient the security services are, at some point they become spread too thin, or human error creeps in, or there are political/legal inhibitions against effective countermeasures, and usually all three. Canadian security screening practices are as efficient as any, but there remains the question of overload and 25,000 in slightly over a month might reasonably be expected to generate just that. The size of the flow afterward is also not at issue, it is that one first surge that’s the problem for the government now. It should not be.
The Prime Minister is under great pressure – a great deal of it self-generated – to distance himself in word and deed from his predecessor. But a little of that goes a long way, is more safely done in domestic policy, and has to be balanced against a realistic assessment of risk. One thing of note is that as with the promise to withdraw the CF-18s from Iraq/Syria the word ‘responsibly’ is being used repeatedly by Mr. Trudeau. That covers a multitude of cases and the Prime Minister, one hopes, means it and avoids digging himself into a hole he could easily stay out of.
Welcome the 25,000. But stage them in through midpoints in Europe where they can be screened without undue haste – with sufficient oversight to minimize delay – and allocated to communities in Canada that are fully prepared to welcome them would seem responsible. Hasty election promises are forgiveable; hasty and flawed fulfilment much less so, and foreign policy – which the refugee issue is inevitably a part of – is the most susceptible of all to unintended consequences.