The federal government's decision to recall the CF-18 jets from the coalition fighting the Islamic State is a terrible blow to Canada's credibility on the world stage. At a time when our allies, galvanized by the Paris terrorist attacks, are stepping up their military efforts against IS, the new Liberal government is retreating from the combat zone by pulling back its most visible contribution to the bombing campaign against IS fighters. True, these six aging jets were playing a secondary role, but their presence was highly symbolic in a context where symbols count for a great deal.
This move sends clear messages both to our allies and to the Islamic State: Canada cannot be relied on when tragedy strikes a close ally, and Canadians are quick to back off under threats of terrorism.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau could have at least waited until the end of the Canadian mission, scheduled for late March, to bring home the planes. The delay would give his government time to reflect and analyze the global situation – a situation that has changed since October, 2014, when the Liberals objected to a combat role against IS (a stand criticized by three Liberal heavyweights – Bob Rae, Lloyd Axworthy and Roméo Dallaire) and something that Mr. Trudeau has never been able to justify with a minimum of coherence.
Now is the time for solidarity with France. Even Russian President Vladimir Putin vowed to work with what he calls his French ally. But what about Canada, a member of NATO, an organization whose first rule is that all members should come to the aid of an ally confronted by a foreign invasion? The danger France faces now is worse than an invasion by a regular army, since it is the civilian population that is being targeted.
Instead, the blood on the Paris streets had hardly been washed away when Mr. Trudeau reaffirmed the Canada would lessen its military efforts against IS. It would be an understatement to say that the optics are bad, and indeed IS propagandists were quick to exploit this blatant breach of solidarity, spreading the word that Canada's retreat was a sign that the U.S.-led coalition is unravelling. Islamist extremists don't believe in compromise, remember. (When Israel dismantled its colonies in Gaza, instead of seeing a message of goodwill or a step toward peace, Hamas boasted that Israel had fled out of weakness.)
In his brief statement to the press on Monday, at the end of the G20 summit in Turkey, Mr. Trudeau, again, was incapable of justifying the decision to withdraw the CF-18s, let alone the deplorable timing. The only explanation he gave is that the Canadian electorate had voted for an end of the bombing mission. Although this disengagement was part of the Liberal platform, it was never a big campaign theme. People voted for change, against a government that was past its due date. And shortly before the campaign began, three opinion polls showed that a majority of Canadians supported the military mission as it was.
Canada will keep part of its commitment, notably by focusing on training more local combatants; the sad irony is that these military advisers, working near combat zones, will be more at risk than fighter-jet pilots.
Islamic State fighters will not thank Canada for stopping the bombings. On the contrary, they will see Canada as a weaker, more vulnerable prey. Canada's dishonourable retreat will not save it from eventual terrorist attacks. So, to paraphrase Churchill, we will have both dishonour and war.