No Fight in this Dog

The so-called Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) is a pathological mixture of perverse extremism, medieval standards and amoral behaviour whose barbarous practices surpass even Nazi atrocities, if not in scale then certainly in degree. That ISIS thrives is surely an embarrassment to the civilized world. ISIS may not be the only impediment to peace and security in the Middle East, but it is by far and away the one that the world needs to eliminate now. If there was ever a case for a just war, the destruction of ISIS is it. Those who can must continue to combat ISIS directly.

Disappointingly, Canada might be backing away from its role in the direct fight against ISIS. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau looks like a leader who cannot, or will not, fight. He has come to office with no defence policy and no strategy to reverse our dwindling defence capacity, yet for some reason that remains to be explained he intends to end Canadian bombing missions against ISIS. He wants to back out of the fight against the world’s most vicious terrorist group, even though these extremist Islamist thugs continue to inspire attacks against our close allies and other innocent people. He wants to remove our combat capacity from the US-led coalition supporting Iraqi ground forces in Iraq and attacking ISIS targets in Syria. Consequently, the Prime Minister seems reluctant to stand decisively against evil.

Instead, Mr. Trudeau seems to think that other roles will be more helpful, declaring that Canada can contribute in a “meaningful” way through humanitarian action, refugee efforts and casualty-free training missions behind the lines, all the while claiming “Canada is back” and ready to demonstrate “leadership” in global affairs. Let’s be clear, while training missions can build indigenous capacity, they have no direct Canadian effect on the battlefield. Humanitarian activity and refugee programs contribute nothing to the destruction of ISIS. In fact, it can be argued that both roles provide ISIS with some reward for their bad behaviour. As more refugees flee battle zones, it becomes easier for ISIS to establish its authority over those remaining behind.

Justin Trudeau crop

If the government is content merely to treat symptoms of conflict, rather than excise the cause, it can continue with Mr. Trudeau’s “sunny ways” agenda and avoid direct engagement of ISIS. If, on the other hand, the government does indeed intend to show any kind of leadership in this regard, it will have to fight ISIS … somehow, sometime, somewhere.

Despite all the ISIS-inspired hatred and violence, our Prime Minister has uttered not one word of heated enthusiasm to defeat and destroy ISIS. For all his interest in using social media, Mr. Trudeau seems not to have spent any time on YouTube looking at disgusting videos of horrendous murders and torture carried out by ISIS.  State intelligence services including Canada’s and reputable international think tanks also provide ample evidence of ISIS pathology. Maybe the Prime Minister is “just not ready” for a real fight.

When the Prime Minister says that Canada has “expertise” in military training, he is correct. But he ignores the fact that training expertise is a product of fighting experience. Canada’s premier military expertise comes from combat. Our history shows this. Far from having a mythical “peacekeeping tradition”, Canada has fought, or has been prepared to fight, for longer and with more casualties than our contributions to all United Nations peacekeeping missions combined.

To be fair, it must be recognized that the international campaign against ISIS does not exist in a vacuum. The broader geopolitical circumstances that exist in the Middle East create a cauldron of religious, tribal and interstate conflicts fed by inept authoritarian, oligarchic, theocratic governance. Within this melee, ISIS is as much product as provocateur. Nonetheless, neither Mr. Trudeau nor any of his ministers seem capable of engaging in a meaningful discussion of international strategy in the region. Public remarks by the Prime Minister, Foreign Affairs Minister Stéphane Dion and Minister of National Defence Harjit Sajjan all hover comfortably around election promises and descriptions of Canadian activity devoid of profound understanding of the pervasive complexities infecting the broader context. Even now, Mr. Dion speaks publicly only about how Canada’s amended contribution to the fight against ISIS will meet as many of our coalition allies requests as we can manage. It seems that, in addition to backing away from direct engagement of ISIS, Canada is now taking orders like a short-order cook. Government is taking Canada “back” to the powder-monkey role we left behind in 1931.

Op Impact Cdn troops loading

There are three broad reasons why Canada should act against ISIS. First, if government intends to conform to norms of liberal internationalism, we must necessarily contribute to international action against ISIS, in concert with other states, in whatever form we might find to be effective. Such action need not involve fighting, but Canada has not shied away from fighting in the past when required. We fought against the Nazis. We were prepared to fight Communism. We fought al Qaeda. We fought the Taliban. We are fighting ISIS. Why should we stop fighting ISIS now?

Second, if Canada intends as Mr. Trudeau has declared, to re-engage in constructive multilateralism, we should act in concert with allied or other like-minded nations, in a manner we find both acceptable and effective. Once again, this approach does not necessarily have to include fighting, but if Canada wants to have any influence over multilateral activity, it will have to fight in some substantial way. We have seen that our current level of contribution to the coalition bombing campaign against ISIS is insufficient to gain an invitation to a meeting of coalition leaders discussing future action against ISIS. At current levels, we do not even have a “seat at the table”, rendering government claims of Canadian “leadership” laughable. We can and should do more.

Third, and probably most important, it is in our own interest to act in concert with the US and other major allies (e.g. Australia, United Kingdom, France, Netherlands), but to do so with an eye to protecting Canadian interests. If the Americans and other close allies are fighting, we should fight too – to the extent our capabilities and capacities allow. The inconvenient truth is that, as it has throughout history, strategic combat effectiveness is the currency of influence and power. Getting to the table is easy. Getting a chance to speak comes at the price of achieving meaningful effects. The attention and respect of others comes only with decisive achievement.

If Canada is to show any degree of meaningful leadership in the truly difficult circumstances surrounding the international mission to destroy ISIS, we will have to fight to a meaningful degree. To do so, Canada needs a leader who is not afraid to fight when and where necessary. We have had such leaders in the past. We need one now.

BGen (ret) Dr. James S. Cox

Jim is a former Canadian Army Brigadier-General with extensive UN and NATO operational experience. He is a Senior Fellow with the Macdonald-Laurier Institute. and he also teaches foreign policy and civil-military relations at universities in Ottawa.

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