Gerald Caplan is an African scholar, former NDP national director and a regular panelist on CBC's Power and Politics.
This is a war that's been going on for 35 years. As retired American Colonel Andrew Bacevich notes in the Washington Post, Syria is the 14th country in the Islamic world that U.S. forces and their allies have invaded, occupied or bombed in that time. These interventions, Mr. Bacevich points out, have been counter-productive, actually doing more harm than good, sowing today's wild instability and "playing directly into the hands of anti-Western radical Islamists."
Yet here we go again. The Islamic State has succeeded in inflaming public opinion in the west with its grisly public beheadings of westerners. Western politicians feel they must do something. But they have no idea what to do. What tactics might succeed now that have failed in the past? No one knows, so they simply re-use all the old tools and pray for a different result. Isn't this the definition of madness?
In Canada, for example, the Harper government has offered a modest military contribution to the anti-IS coalition. To what end?
The Prime Minister tells us that "When we think something is necessary and noble, we do not sit back and say only other people should do it. The Canadian way is we do our part." He believes IS threatens Canadians "even in our homes." John Baird says his Canada "does not leave all the heavy lifting to others." Jason Kenney points out that IS is a lethal, even genocidal, threat to religious minorities (although its main targets by far are other Muslims.)
If they mean what they say, there are irresistible implications: That we should offer every available Canadian resource – human, military, financial, humanitarian – to defeat IS and protect its victims. That we should not rest until the job is completed however long that may take. Yet the government has instead opted for a limited six-month intervention in only one country with no Canadian ground troops plus a limited amount of money for humanitarian needs plus a readiness to accept a token number of refugees.
What does this meagre intervention have to do with the apocalyptic dangers the government describes? Why are we only going after IS in Iraq and not in Syria? Is it conceivably true that we'd go into Syria if its homicidal government gives permission?
Like everyone else, Mr. Harper agrees IS cannot be defeated without ground troops. But like every other western member of the anti-IS coalition, Canada will provide none. So who will send in those troops? The criminal Syrian army? The laughingstock Iraqi army? The brave Turks idly contemplating IS overrunning Kobani?
Maybe our new Iranian associates will send in their elite troops. We're on the same side now, after all. They may not be formal coalition allies, but they hate IS as much as we do. I'm sure John Baird welcomes another anti-IS force, even if Iran remains the most dangerous country in the world.
Or maybe Saudi Arabia – world-class experts in oppressing women, promoting jihadis and beheading (but not westerners) – will provide boots on the ground protected by military equipment bought from Canada with the approval of our government.
Yet Mr. Harper is not naïve. He acknowledges that the present war may well not eliminate IS or bring peace and stability to the tumultuous region. He says we won't get bogged down in a "prolonged quagmire." This leads to other obvious questions.
What happens to Canada's six-month mission when it's discovered that IS (or an even greater extremist menace, since new ones seem to materialize daily) still exists and there is still neither peace nor stability? Will Canada sit back and let others do the heavy lifting after all? Will the mission be extended until every IS thug is killed? Until every Canadian is safe? How much can we afford to spend on this mission? How much might the federal election help determine the government's policies?
So many questions, so few answers.
In Afghanistan, the Harper government finally saw the light and chose to cut and run, impossible mission unaccomplished. But given the pure evil of IS and our government's determination to "do our part," does that mean Canada will in fact never withdraw until all extremists in the Middle East are dead?
"If Canada wants to keep its voice in the world ... being a free rider means you are not taken seriously," Stephen Harper says. An interesting statement, since much of his foreign policy until now has been based on the exact opposite premise, repeated ad nauseum, that his government won't go along to get along. The result has been that Canada's voice has often been unheard and rarely taken seriously. As Prof. Roland Paris wrote in a devastating critique in this paper last month, Harper's foreign policy has marginalized Canada. Now the PM has decided to go along with America and the other coalition allies in order to get along with them, and in the process has emerged with a plan that is so inconsistent with the government's own unrestrained rhetoric that it makes all involved look either foolish, disingenuous or opportunistic.