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While Justin Trudeau's Liberals were painfully searching for a clear position on the ongoing war against the Islamic State, New Democratic Leader Thomas Mulcair wisely called for caution and restraint, thus becoming one of the rare political leaders in the coalition to take the time to reflect before reaching for his gun.

The NDP has always had a knee-jerk pacifist reflex in international affairs, but in this case, Mr. Mulcair is right. Before dragging Canada into a protracted military confrontation filled with unpredictable ramifications, it was eminently sensible to demand a public debate – something that Prime Minister Stephen Harper, true to his ways, has done his best to avoid.

For as long as he could, Mr. Harper kept his cards close to his vest – as if this were his own little personal bridge game, and as if the lives of Canadian citizens and soldiers were not at stake. For two weeks, the country's population has been left in the dark. Is the government contemplating sending more military advisers to Iraq, and if so, to do what? Will our fighter jets be sent to the Middle East? Where is this spiral leading us? Most military experts say that bombing zones occupied by the Islamic State will not be sufficient and that at some point, there will be a need for "boots on the ground." Are we prepared for that? Do we want it?

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The most frightening thing is that even U.S. President Barack Obama and other leaders of this new foray into Muslim territory – after the failed incursions of recent years in Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya – don't seem to have a clue where they're going, let alone an exit strategy. Mr. Obama's astounding avowal that American intelligence services had "underestimated" the situation in Syria is anything but reassuring.

This military offensive was decided upon – or rather, it seems, improvised – amid an emotional climate triggered by the beheadings of Western hostages. This was an understandable political response, but was it wise to rush impulsively down the path to war without first assessing the situation and the risks? Alas, at a time when cool-headed analysis was required, too many politicians preferred to spend their time hurling vain cries of indignation against "the barbarians."

One wonders whether these awful, highly publicized murders were not carried out precisely as a provocation, to force the United States and its allies into war. These Islamic State fighters have a medieval frame of mind, but they're very 21st century when it comes to manipulating public opinion.

Could it be that the Islamic State has something to gain from this U.S.-led offensive? How many civilians will be killed by bombs and drones launched by Western forces? Even if most Sunnis don't want to live under an Islamic "caliphate," these attacks are bound to increase the anti-Western feelings already prevalent in the Middle East and play into the hands of well-organized fanatics. Forget the lame Arab support for the coalition: The Sunni monarchies are all threatened by the Islamic State's rise, but they'd rather have the West doing the dirty work.

Maybe the Western democracies should have left countries like Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Iran and Syria to deal with the Islamic State using their own forces, which are not negligible. Or maybe an American-led armed intervention was necessary, considering the huge threat this organization represents for the world as a whole. What's certain is that Canadians need this issue to be debated before we slide past the point of no return.

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