Skip to main content
opinion

Eugene Lang is BMO visiting fellow and interim co-director, Glendon School of Public and International Affairs, York University. He was chief of staff to two Ministers of National Defence and was involved directly in the decision-making process on two of Canada's missions to Afghanistan in 2003 and 2005. He is co-author (with Janice Stein) of the award winning book, The Unexpected War: Canada in Kandahar.

One of the more predictable things in Canadian politics in recent years has been the positions the three main federal parties will take when faced with making a decision about whether to send our armed forces to be involved in multilateral coalitions that are fighting wars.

The NDP usually opposes involvement in such missions; the Conservatives will almost always support them; and the Liberals can always be counted on to be conflicted (at least internally).

The government's decision to contribute CF-18 fighter aircraft to the multilateral coalition fighting Islamic State in Iraq and Syria is a case in point. Canadians, therefore, can be forgiven if they are having trouble coming to grips with the logic underpinning the respective positions of these three political parties.

One way to get a better handle on who has the most appropriate posture for Canada is to consider the basic questions that governments normally and rightfully work through in reaching a decision on contributing to a war effort.

The first order question is usually, "is the fight and the enemy a potential threat to Canadian national security or to Canadians?" The answer to this is dependent on the degree to which the government has a sophisticated understanding of the nature of the conflict and its actors, their motivations, their commitment to the cause and their capabilities to strike at us directly.

The second order question that usually gets posed is, "what are our ally's positions on this conflict and are they pressuring us to get involved?" By allies here we mean the United States and Britain first and foremost, NATO secondly and other individual NATO states a distant third.

The next question that typically crops up is whether or not the mission has a basis in international law. This is something the Americans don't get that worked up about – witness their invasion of Iraq in 2003, which was almost universally regarded as illegal. But Canadian governments often obsess over the international legal foundation for military deployments abroad. That is chiefly because Canada is a relatively powerless country whose governments have traditionally believed the only way we can have a real influence in global affairs is through a rules-based international system, as naive as that might sound. That said, one of the things you learn rather quickly when you are involved in decisions on foreign military deployments is that international law is often a rather wooly and elastic concept that can be equal parts useful and useless as a guide to decision-making.

Once they get through the international law question, governments will tend to ask themselves whether the multilateral coalition has a strategy that we understand, can support and ultimately explain to Canadians. Canada normally doesn't have much influence over the grand strategy of coalitions, but we at least need to have a comfort level with it.

Then governments move into more mechanical terrain. Ministers ask their military advisors questions like, "what capabilities does the coalition need to be effective, and do we have any of those capabilities that we could contribute"? This is often a tough question for Canada because we have a small and not that well funded military that is capability constrained. Sometimes governments also ask themselves whether Canada will get any political credit among our allies for offering up certain capabilities.

Then, as they work through the capabilities supply-demand equation, governments will get into big questions that have speculative answers, chief among them, "if we offer up capability x,y or z to the coalition, what is the risk to civilian populations from what our forces will be doing?" That is an important question because it gets at our values.

The other fundamental question governments pose at this stage, the answer for which also necessitates a degree of speculation, is "what is the risk to the members of the Canadian Armed Forces if we offer x, y or z capability to the coalition"? The answer to this is vitally important because it gets to the heart of whether public support for the mission can be maintained.

Finally, governments get into questions about the duration of the deployment and its financial cost, which also might produce rather speculative answers.

Those are the basic questions and the normal logic train that governments in this country typically and appropriately work through before taking the most important decision any government can take. We should expect Opposition parties to work through a similar process in arriving at their positions on Canada's involvement in wars.

In the context of the IS conflict, Canadians would do well to think about the degree to which our political parties answered those basic questions, as we reach our own individual conclusions on whose got it right.