Politics, Business & Culture in the Americas

Obama’s Request and Canada’s Decision

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Resisting the rush to war has been a characteristic of the Obama administration since its election in 2008.  Avoiding the Bush-Cheney approach, which led to the Iraq invasion in 2003, Obama has been criticized for indifference, detachment and sometimes weakness in dealing with international crises.  Even former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and former Defense Secretary Leon Panetta are engaged in some historical revisionism regarding their positions in the Obama administration on Syria’s civil war, where they purportedly recommended arming rebel groups against Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad.

The complex situation in the Middle East makes it highly risky to rush into any conflict.  Obama’s reserve regarding events in Syria is understandable when U.S. intelligence has been less-than-reliable in the Middle East for the last forty years.  Besides, America has had its fill of carrying the load and “putting boots on the ground.”  This is why President Obama’s recent efforts to pluralize the Iraqi government under new leadership, to build a coalition of Arab states against the Islamic State (ISIS), to support ground forces in Iraq (the Iraqi army and the Kurdish Peshmerga), and to train vetted Syrian rebels are welcome.

Granted, a war strategy without an exit plan is far from reassuring at this stage, and this war has, as of yet, no definable exit strategy or time limit. The alternative is believing that isolated and defensive measures will be sufficient to beat a group like ISIS—which recruits foreign nationals from the West—and the al-Qaeda-affiliated Khorasan group, which is bent on hitting Western targets, including airplanes in full flight. The ideology underlying the tactics of these terrorists will not end without a coordinated multinational effort requiring years.

Canada is not beyond being a target of ISIS and Khorasan.  In addition, the atrocious humanitarian crisis created by the brutality of ISIS cannot be ignored.  Canada has usually responded with a call to action in such crises.

While many world leaders congregated at the United Nations in New York last week, Prime Minister Stephen Harper spoke of the U.S. president’s request for Canada’s assistance in the emerging coalition against terrorism in Syria and Iraq.  Initially, there was some confusion as to whether Canada asked the U.S., or the other way around. 

At the end of the day, as the coalition has grown to include over 50 countries, Canada cannot avoid a response to the Obama request.  Being a creator of the UN and a respected middle power that has always performed with valor in past world conflicts, Canada is expected to take Obama’s request seriously.

While Harper participated in a special session of the U.N. Security Council (presided over by Obama himself, who had invited Harper), leading politicians in Ottawa were requesting greater transparency from the Harper government, and ultimately, a formal debate in Canada’s House of Commons.

Official Opposition Leader Tom Mulcair (who leads the left-of-center New Democratic Party—NDP), an able and thoughtful opponent, clearly stated his opposition to any increased role in the region by Canada without a formal debate (currently, we have 69 advisors in Iraq for a limited time).  The second opposition party, the Liberals, headed by Justin Trudeau, has also supported the request for a debate.

With a Canadian federal election due for the autumn of 2015, we can expect fireworks in the House, and a lot of political posturing. Harper’s Conservatives seem inclined to participate actively in the call from the United States.  In recent days, traditional allies such as the U.K., France and Belgium have actively joined the air strikes strategy.  The NDP, which is generally reluctant to go along automatically with any U.S. request, is expected to ask for guarantees about the scope and the time limit of any mission.  Liberals, who have generally followed the U.S. strategy on the war against terrorism—with the exception of intervention in Iraq—will likely endorse a limited and circumscribed mission with the U.S.-led coalition.

Clearly, debate about a military mission is necessary for the health of any democracy.  With the Canadian homeland a possible target of these brutal terrorists, we can expect a Canadian role. However, we are a sovereign country, notwithstanding our past history with the U.S. and war efforts.  The decision is ultimately our own.


John Parisella is the former Québec delegate general in New York and currently a visiting professor at the University of Montréal’s International Relations Center. He is also a Member of the Board of Directors of The Montreal Council on Foreign Relations.

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