On Tuesday, the Harper Conservative government decided with its majority in the Canadian House of Commons to engage Canada in the U.S.-led mission against ISIS. In so doing, the Canadian government will carry out a mix of air strikes, surveillance, training and humanitarian aid. The mission is meant to last six months, but will be subject to assessment and review within that period. There is, however, the possibility that it could be extended or expanded.
The New Democratic Party (NDP) and the Liberals opposed the move. As requested, the opposition was able to have a full-throated debate, as a sovereign and healthy democracy should.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper made the case for the ISIS mission using arguments similar to those of U.S. President Barack Obama. Given its senseless violence and genocidal actions, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) is a brutal, murderous force that has a total disregard for the rule of law and basic humanitarian principles. With some ISIS recruits coming from Western countries such as Canada, Harper argued that it has become imperative for the Canadian government to either collaborate with the coalition abroad or face a more serious problem at home with homegrown terrorism.
The mission is UN-sanctioned, and involves over 50 countries, including key Arab states and our traditional allies, such as the U.S., France and Great Britain. Doing nothing would have been unthinkable: on this, most Canadians could agree. The real question was to determine the nature and the extent of Canadian involvement.
Considering the nature of the ISIS threat and the need for Canada to remain in conformity with its traditional international responsibilities and values, the Harper government argued for a measured and circumscribed approach. The motion passed by the Conservative majority is clearly not a blank check. On this point, the opposition parties and their spokespeople deserve some credit.
The opposition made a case primarily for a military advisory role and humanitarian mission. Opposition Leader Tom Mulcair, faithful to NDP traditions and principles, understandably fears the risks of mission creep. However, it seemed clear from the outset that the NDP would not support an air combat component to the mission under any circumstances. Their vote against the Conservative motion was therefore expected and predictable.
The Liberals—who, under leader Justin Trudeau, happen to be flying high in polls for over a year—had to balance current political considerations with their past involvement in other conflicts regarding national security matters. After all, the Liberals governed for most of the twentieth century making decisions about nearly all international missions since World War II.
At the end of the day, Trudeau’s party sided with Mulcair and the NDP. It should be noted that some traditional Liberals, including former Foreign Affairs Minister Lloyd Axworthy (who held the post during the Chrétien years during the late 1990s) and the former interim leader Bob Rae, disagreed with the Liberals’ official opposition. One sitting Liberal member actually abstained, and former Liberal Senator Roméo Dallaire wanted actions beyond the Conservative motion.
There were no major differences of opinion regarding the substance of the decision to strike against ISIS—everyone agreed that something had to be done. The questions were: how and how much? However, it is somewhat regrettable that the House of Commons could not find common ground when troops were sent in harm’s way.
The irony is that Harper, so often depicted by his opponents as a Canadian version of the right-wing Republicans in the U.S., is following a course set by Obama and supported by another Canadian favorite: U.S. politician Hillary Clinton. Through it all, he seemed a reluctant warrior. Canadians like that.
This was not a replay of the 2003 decision regarding the Iraq War, where then-Opposition Leader Harper supported the Bush-led “coalition of the willing.” On this one, and given the circumstances, Harper chose the best course of action.