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What now?

If, as seems almost certain, the crash of Ukraine International Airlines Flight 752 near Tehran, and with it the deaths of 176 innocent passengers and crew, including at least 63 Canadians, was not the result of engine failure or pilot error, but an Iranian missile, what do we do?

It would hardly be surprising to find Iranian forces had shot the plane down – not deliberately, most likely, but by a catastrophic error, of a kind seen before in similar situations. In the chaotic aftermath of the incineration of Iran’s top general, Qassem Soleimani, by an American military drone, and after Iran had lobbed some missiles at two Iraqi military bases housing U.S. troops in response, it seems plausible that someone on the Iranian air-defence desk might have mistakenly identified the Ukrainian airliner on his screen as a threat, freaked and hit the button.

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But if so – if it is confirmed that the lives of at least 63 Canadians were needlessly destroyed as a consequence of decisions taken in other capitals, in a conflict to which we were not a party – what will we do about it? The answer, of course, is nothing. There is, alas, very little we can do.

That, amid the sorrow and the confusion, is the overriding impression left by recent events – of Canadian impotence, even irrelevance. That is not a criticism of this or any Canadian government; it is merely a blunt reality. Canada may not be a belligerent, but it is involved. It has hundreds of troops in the region, notably as part of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization training mission in Iraq. At least 63 of its citizens are now dead. Yet, it is wholly at the mercy of decisions by others, whose judgment and values it has no reason to trust.

The President of the United States decides to “take out” an Iranian general. He does not bother to alert, let alone consult, anyone in Canada (in fairness, he seems not to have consulted anyone in his own country, either). In retaliation, Iran attacks a U.S. military base in Erbil, Iraq, at which Canadian forces are stationed, mercifully without loss of life. A passenger plane carrying dozens of Canadians explodes over Tehran, and, well, it’s all terribly unfortunate, isn’t it? War is hell.

Nor is this likely to be the end of it. The airliner attack might have been unintended – the Prime Minister seemed unsure of this at his news conference Thursday – but it seems improbable that Iran’s thirst to avenge Gen. Soleimani’s death will be slaked by a perfunctory strike on a couple of military bases. So the question that arose earlier in the crisis, when it seemed some more spectacular response might be imminent, remains relevant: Should Iran inflict the sort of “severe” retaliation it has promised, would Canada, and the United States’ other NATO partners, come to its aid under Article 5, the treaty’s collective-defence provision?

And the answer is: Of course they wouldn’t. It has been much remarked by American commentators that Donald Trump’s Iran misadventure, reportedly motivated less by any immediate threat than by a desire not to look weak in the face of the attack by Iranian-backed protesters on the U.S. embassy in Iraq, marked a breaking point – the moment when the President’s erratic behaviour and impulsive decisions went beyond an embarrassment and became a full-blown crisis. But it is not just a breaking point for the United States. It is the same for its allies.

NATO is not just a document, nor are its terms confined to the text of the agreement. It is a set of understandings – about the world, and about the place of the organization’s members in it, in place since its founding. In particular, it was expected that the United States would not be led by a crazy person; that it would assume the responsibilities of leadership as well as the prerogatives; that as it could be expected to stand by its commitments to its allies, so they would stand by it; that it would be the victim of an Article 5 attack, and not the perpetrator.

None of these can still be asserted with any confidence. That was evident enough before this, indeed from the moment Mr. Trump took office. Whether it was his evident belief that NATO is some sort of protection racket, whose member states must somehow pay the United States to enjoy its continued security guarantee, or his refusal to state, unequivocally, his willingness to abide by the United States’ Article 5 obligations with regard to the Baltic states, or his strange affinity for Russian President Vladimir Putin, it has long been clear that NATO is in peril, if not experiencing “brain-death,” in French President Emmanuel Macron’s phrase.

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But after this? Mr. Trump has begun talking vaguely of the need for NATO to get “more involved” in the Middle East. Perhaps there is something in it – but as an alternative to American leadership, not in conformity with it. Put simply, NATO cannot trust this President. It cannot trust his word, it cannot depend on his judgment and it cannot accept his leadership.

Neither can we be sure this is temporary. Mr. Trump is as much a symptom as a cause of a larger phenomenon. A significant section of the American public has become so alienated from their fellow citizens and so fearful of the world as to be willing to sustain a madman in power, even to re-elect him. Mr. Trump’s retreat from American leadership accurately reflects their desires. It is unclear whether the country would wish to resume its previous position under his successors, if it were capable of it.

For Canada, this is a crisis of another order. For decades, we have effectively outsourced much of our defence and foreign policy to the United States. It infantilized us in many ways – many Canadians appear to believe we are some kind of neutral power, the only one in history to have its defence paid for by another country. That holiday from reality is now over.

Our leaders are ostensibly aware of this, yet we still see little evidence of this in policy. We are still spending far less than some of our fellow democracies on defence, still wasting much of what we do spend playing silly political games with procurement, still sending our military into harm’s way with inadequate, outdated equipment. Fixing that is something we can do.

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