This article was originally published in The Globe and Mail, Dec. 18, 2015.
Justin Trudeau’s position on the use of Canadian air assets in the bombing campaign against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria raises more questions than it answers and begs answers from the Prime Minister himself.
A majority of Canadians supported the air campaign when it was started about a year ago – and still do. It’s a good guess that even more are perfectly happy to continue killing or containing IS after the horrors of the downing of a Russian airliner over the Sinai Peninsula, the Nov. 13 massacre in Paris, the IS-inspired killing rampage in San Bernardino, Calif., and deadly bombings in Ankara and Beirut.
There is no indication that Mr. Trudeau is a religious or moral pacifist and thus against the use of force in principle. Indeed, government “insiders” have told various reporters that Canada will keep its air tankers and reconnaissance aircraft in the region to help the bombing campaign. That makes little sense. If we are against the use of force to contain IS, why are we directly willing to aid those who are prepared to do so? As any fighter pilot knows, when a tanker is needed to carry out a mission, any old mission tanker will do – U.S., Canadian, British, etc. No tankers, no missions.
As for our CP-140s, they have long been configured to guide bombers to hit ground targets, as they did in Libya. They may not pull the trigger on the sniper rifle, but they do call out the windage and elevation for the sniper who is actually doing the shooting.
Mr. Trudeau says he is going to carry through with his promise because Canadians gave him a mandate to do it. That’s not a viable explanation. Canadians voted for him and his party for a lot of reasons last October, but the mission in the Middle East was hardly high on anyone’s political agenda. And besides, that vote took place before the last round of murder and mayhem by IS.
The people around Mr. Trudeau claim that all the major leaders he has talked to are okay with his projected withdrawal. That is no doubt a fig leaf. The French are increasing their bombing, as is the United States; the British just joined the air campaign; and even the Germans have sent military planes, though only to do reconnaissance for now. So they are all going in one direction while Mr. Trudeau is moving in the opposite way? That makes no sense either.
More likely those leaders are loath to interfere in the internal politics of another country by openly declaring their disappointment in Canada.
There is the possibility that Mr. Trudeau has decided – and is telling our allies – that Canada’s training mission (currently consisting of fewer than 60 soldiers) will be considerably ramped up as the jets are withdrawn. But training is fraught with problems of its own, as the U.S. and other countries have found out in Africa, Iraq and other places. You can train until you are blue in the face, but if the trainees are not motivated to fight, they won’t, no matter how well trained or equipped. IS’s triumphs over the Iraqi army proved that. And, as our new Minister of National Defence has declared, a country that wishes to “train” had better know who it is training and what the blowback can be in a place where so many armed groups are competing and killing each other.
Most Canadians no doubt wish the new government well, especially in its most important task: to defend Canada, its people, its interests and its allies. The new government might start by explaining why it’s so determined to get Canadian jets out of the region.
David Bercuson is a fellow of the Canadian Global Affairs Institute and director of international policy at the University of Calgary’s School of Public Policy.