In the op/ed columns of newspapers and on blogs on the internet and in commentary on television and radio, a debate is raging over the necessity of “boots on the ground”. The question is one of how to deal with ISIS – not the ancient Egyptian goddess but the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria – the Sunni jihadist organization that has seized control of a large chunk of territory on both sides of the Syrian-Iraqi border and which earlier this year proclaimed itself to be a caliphate. We have been hearing news stories about the atrocities this group has perpetrated, from the ethnic cleansing of the Yazidi to the mass kidnapping of Christian girls to the beheading of Western journalists, for months and for those carrying out the aforementioned debate, it is a matter of whether air strikes would be a sufficient response or whether a ground invasion is necessary. It is taken as a given by both sides that military intervention of some sort or another is necessary..
That military action against ISIS is necessary is certainly the position of our Prime Minister Stephen Harper. Last month he declared the Islamic State to be “a direct threat to the security of this country” and promised that Canada would not “stand on the sidelines and watch” in the fight against ISIS but that we would “do our part”. What doing our part entails, apparently, is the sending of Canadian CF-18 Hornet fighter jets, along with support vehicles and military personnel, to take part in an international coalition fighting against ISIS in Iraq. The House of Commons approved this action by a vote of 157-134 on October 7th and polls indicate that it has broad support among Canadians.
That support is not universal, of course, and while Prime Minister Harper’s rhetoric does raise the interesting question of what he would have proposed to do about this “direct threat” to Canada’s security if an international coalition had not already existed and neither the USA, UK, not UN showed any interest in fighting ISIS, perhaps the best argument in favour of the government’s position is to contrast it with the alternative position of the vapid and vainglorious leader of the Liberal Party, Justin Trudeau. Trudeau insists that Canada’s role in this conflict should be one of providing “humanitarian assistance” rather than combat, i.e., providing food, shelter, and other necessities to the victims of ISIS rather than helping to take out the terrorist organization that is victimizing them. This is rather akin to the man in the old anecdote about the insane asylum who proves that he is worthy of abiding in that institution by continuing to mop up a floor flooded by an overflowing sink rather than turn off the tap.
Recently, former Liberal Prime Minister Jean Chretien weighed in on the matter, supporting Trudeau’s position, pointing to all the thankful remarks he still receives from Canadians for keeping us out of the 2003 Iraq War and saying that providing humanitarian assistance has been Canada’s way for fifty years. That is somewhat of an oversimplification, which ignores the fact that Canadians had a combat role in the War on Afghanistan authorized by Mr. Chretien himself or that we had a combat role in the original war against Saddam Hussein in 1991.
Yes, Jean Chretien was right to keep us out of the 2003 Iraq War. It was probably the only time in his life he was ever right about anything but you know what they say about a stopped clock. The invasion of Iraq began in the March of 2003, one year and a half after the attack by Islamic terrorist organization Al Qaeda upon the United States on September 11, 2001. It was this latter event that took the administration of then American President George W. Bush down a militaristic path. Now the United States, at least to any sane person, had in the 9/11 attack a clear justification for retaliation. It seemed odd, therefore, that so soon after 9/11, while its broadly supported efforts to take out the terrorist organization responsible for the attacks and the Taliban regime that sheltered them were still underway and incomplete, the Bush administration would concentrate so much effort on taking out the Saddam Hussein regime which had no plausible connection to the attacks.
The Bush administration’s official reason for toppling the Hussein regime was their claim that Hussein was developing Weapons of Mass Destruction which it was cleverly hiding from UN inspection teams. That seemed then as it seems now to be an excuse, a pretence that hid the Bush administration’s real motives. At the time those of us, left and right, who thought the Iraq War was a mistake, did so because a costly war of regime change in Iraq did not make sense when the War in Afghanistan was still underway and because we suspected that the actual motives of the Bush administration were less than noble. Whether those suspicions were warranted or not, now, looking on it from the perspective of eleven years of hindsight, another reason for considering the Iraq War to have been utter folly is apparent. Namely, that it is the removal of Saddam Hussein that made the rise of ISIS possible.
The Ba’ath government of Saddam Hussein was reprehensible in many ways, of course, but what it had going for it was that it was capable of keeping jihadist groups like the one that eventually became ISIS down. If what Iraq needed was a stable government, with something vaguely resembling law and order if you looked at it from far enough away, where Muslims other than those of the predominant sect, Christians, and other groups would enjoy a degree of protection and not be completely trampled on, then Saddam Hussein was the best of all possible bad options.
Whatever the non-ideological motivations of the Bush administration might have been, two overarching ideological principles can be seen to have guided its military actions. The first is the idea of “taking the fight to the enemy”, i.e., going overseas to take out the terrorists before they can attack us in Western countries. The second is the idea is that terrorism is the product of and supported by non-democratic governments which should therefore be replaced by democratic ones wherever possible. If the “War on Terror” was an expression of the first idea, the Iraq War embodied the second.
The current President of the United States has been criticized by many for his handling of international affairs. Frequently this takes the form of comparing him negatively to George W. Bush – whereas the latter was decisive, firm, and strong, Obama is indecisive, wishy-washy, and weak. However much truth there may be in this, I would suggest that with regards to international affairs, Obama deserves the most criticism for the area in which he and Bush are most alike, namely their naïve belief in democracy as a universal force for good.
By removing the dictator who kept such forces at bay in Iraq, in the name of democracy, Bush created the conditions that led to the rise of ISIS there, just as his insistence upon democratic elections in the West Bank and Gaza Strip only empowered and gave a sort of pseudo-legitimacy to the terrorist organization Hamas. Obama received much criticism for not following through on the “line in the sand” rhetoric he directed against the government of Bashar al-Assad in the Syrian Civil War, but, while this did cause the United States to lose a great deal of “face”, perhaps the bigger problem was that he had thrown his support behind the rebels, when the weakening of the Assad regime is precisely what led to the rise of ISIS on the Syrian side of the border. Consistently, Obama like Bush before him, has supported rebel groups against strongman governments in Egypt, Libya and all across the Middle East and, as with Bush before him, the largest benefactor has been Islamic jihadists.
Indeed, if you are looking for a sound case against Canada’s involvement in the coalition against ISIS, ignore the twaddle coming out of the mouth of the son of our worst ever Prime Minister, the fact that Barack Obama is the leader of the coalition is a good place to start. To that, we could add that the coalition includes the biggest jihad-sponsoring countries in the Middle East but none of the governments that have effectively kept down and contained jihadist terrorism in the past. The same was true of the coalition George W. Bush put together for his War on Terror which is why that War was for the most part a sad and sick joke. Finally, we could make the case ironclad by pointing out that while our opponents, by establishing a caliphate, have sought to stoke the fire of zeal among their followers by conjuring up imagery from the earliest history of Islam when it was united, strong, and a virtually unstoppable juggernaut, we are once again marching into battle against them not under the aegis of the faith that defeated their fathers at Tours and the Gates of Vienna, but in the name of liberalism, the disease that is killing us from the inside.
Perhaps one day Western leaders will awaken to the fact that the best strategy for dealing with groups like ISIS is the reverse of the Bush doctrine. Instead of taking the fight to the terrorists overseas in the hopes of averting terrorist attacks on Western soil it would make much more sense to close the borders of the West to the Islamic world so that we do not have to involve ourselves in their conflicts over there. Despite the disturbing number of “Western” youth being recruited by organizations like ISIS, however, this strategy is less acceptable to progressive liberals and leftists like Justin Trudeau and Thomas Mulcair than outright war. In the meantime, we should be thankful that Prime Minister Harper, however grandiose his rhetoric, placed very careful and specific limits on the military action for which he sought and obtained Parliamentary approval. The United States is not so fortunate. Their president is clearly in over his head and in the long run could potentially have them bogged down in a quagmire that would make George W. Bush’s look like a little mud puddle in comparison.
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