For the Conservative government, it's not enough for Canadians to believe Islamic State should be stopped by military means. The Tories insist the mission is necessary to stop a direct and present danger to the security of Canadians here at home.
But that might be harder to sell than they realize.
Canadians don't seem to see it that way. A poll conducted by the Angus Reid Institute found more respondents believe the mission will make Canada more dangerous (38 per cent) than safer (19 per cent.)
Yet Canadians support the military mission despite that. They're willing to send CF-18s and special-forces advisors to stop the bad guys of Islamic State from committing atrocities, from killing or persecuting minorities, and imposing harsh rule over the lands it controls.
But the government really wants a different narrative. In their recent public statements, in speeches, and Question Period, they've insisted that what really matters is that Islamic State – aka ISIL, ISIS, or Daesh – poses a direct threat.
"ISIL has declared war on Canada," Foreign Affairs Minister Rob Nicholson said Monday in Question Period. "No reasonable person or political party would dispute this."
Last week, Mr. Nicholson convened the ambassadors of coalition nations to a speech at his department's headquarters, in which he decried the horrors of Islamic State, and noted Canadians are appalled. But he said that's not why the government is extending the military mission.
"For all that Canadians are outraged by ISIL, it's not outrage that drives us to stay the course. It is a fact that leaders of ISIL claim that ISIL is a direct threat to Canadians," he said.
As far as the government is concerned, it is that direct threat that is the casus belli. But that's not really so for Canadians. Again – the respondents in that Angus Reid Institute survey were more likely to think that joining the mission makes Canada more dangerous, rather than safer. (More complete results of the Angus Reid Institute's survey of 1,500 people randomly selected from an online panel can be found here.) What Canadians want to see as the justification is protecting the innocent from atrocities.
Jean-Christophe Boucher, a professor at MacEwan University in Edmonton, noted in an interview last week that that's the kind of reason – protecting innocents – that typically moves Canadians to support military missions. They supported Kosovo airstrikes in 1999 to stop ethnic cleansing, and airstrikes on Libya to stop Moammar Ghadafi slaughtering dissidents.
Mr. Boucher said that when it came to Afghanistan, the Conservatives initially made the mistake of trying to sell the mission as stopping terrorists abroad before they threaten Canada – but the public didn't really buy it. They eventually shifted their message to emphasize protecting human rights – helping Afghan girls go to school, for example.
But Prime Minister Stephen Harper's government is repeating that initial Afghan message: the reason to fight now is to stop terrorists who are out to get us here.
There are differences over the scope of the threat Islamic State poses in Canada. The attacks in Canada last fall were committed by individuals inspired by Islamic State propaganda, but with no known organizational link to them. Ottawa shooter Michael Zehaf-Bibeau cited Canada's role in the mission as his reason. It's not clear that Islamic State has much capacity to plot terrorist attacks in western countries, but still, left unopposed, they could develop it.
But it is notable that Mr. Harper's Conservatives insist that what matters is the direct threat right now – especially when Canadians support the mission for other reasons.
They surely feel that it's crucial to make that link, to tie together the military mission abroad and domestic security measures like Bill C-51, the anti-terror legislation, and the general message of fear and danger they have conveyed.
Perhaps, Mr. Harper recalls that the public's faith in the Afghanistan mission faded as Canadians who once called for stopping the Taliban gradually doubted the corrupt Afghan government. The fight against Islamic State seems a clear cause now, but the sectarian nature of the fighting or fractiousness of allies might eventually weaken that certainty.
But Mr. Harper's government may find that they're selling this mission the hard way. Canadians already support it – just not for the reasons the government does.