Canada in Iraq: an example of R2P or preventive war?

Terry Glavin wrote a new column assailing the NDP’s position on Canada’s military mission to Iraq and Syria. It’s quite a thing. There is much sound and fury. It’s rather partisan.

It strikes me however that, politics and passion aside, Glavin fails to  grapple with the confusion implicit in the articulation of Canada’s mission, and by extension his own argument.

Simply put, why are we there? Are we there to prevent genocide, or protect Canadians?

If the conflict is about the protection of civilians, as Glavin vigorously asserts, then we cannot be as glib as he is about exit strategy:

It isn’t one of those clever-sounding “exit strategy” questions. Here’s why: Our troops board a Royal Canadian Air Force CC-150 Polaris, it exits by taking off and flying through the air (I know, amazing isn’t it), and in no time they’re all back in Canada.

In any R2P mission, the question, “and then what?” is absolutely crucial. If a country lapses into conflict the moment we leave, then we’ve accomplished nothing, and done so at great cost, both to the country we aim to help and to ourselves.

Conversely, if the conflict is actually about protecting Canadians, as Prime Minister Harper’s comments seem to indicate when justifying the extension to the mission, then it is true that an exit strategy matters less:

The highest priority of any government must be protecting its citizens from harm. I believe that Canadians realize that we cannot stand on the sidelines while ISIL commits atrocities in the Middle East and promotes terrorism in Canada and against our allies. We are therefore seeking the support of Canadian parliamentarians for our decision to extend and expand Canada’s military mission, with our allies, to fight Islamic jihadism which threatens national and global security. We intend to continue to degrade and disrupt ISIL as well as provide humanitarian and stabilization support to help alleviate the suffering this terrorist group is inflicting.

Once the threat is neutralized—assuming for the moment that the threat to Canada and its allies (however defined) a) exists and b) can be so neutralized—Canadian forces can return home, mission accomplished.

Unfortunately, that is no longer a humanitarian mission; rather, that sounds much more like preventive war against a specific military force. That’s something that Canadians might legitimately question in terms of, among other things, perceptions regarding the reality and significance of the threat to Canada and Canadians, as well as the efficacy of the response proposed and its legality under international law.

It remains unclear how much ISIS can actually hurt Canada, except through the indirect of route of further destabilizing the Middle East.  Assuming we succeed in degrading ISIS to the point it no longer constitutes a threat (however we might measure that) to Canada and whatever subgroups in the region we settle on as our allies (are rural Sunnis currently under ISIS’ control our allies?), once Canada and its allies depart, something like ISIS will likely reappear unless we leave with a political solution in place. That includes a robust state apparatus (two actually; one in Iraq and another in Syria) capable of managing the manifold tensions of the region.

The bottom line is that one can retain sympathy for the idea of a robust mission dedicated to the protection of civilians in Iraq and Syria, while still questioning whether Canada’s mission, as presently constructed, can contribute to that aim over the long term. One can certainly do so without being labelled a pacifist.

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