For the government, it's always Munich. And for the opposition, it's always Vietnam.
For the Harper government, the fight against the death cult that calls itself the Islamic State – which is, incidentally, neither Islamic nor a state – is morally clear and unambiguous. It is also a practical necessity: ISIS must be fought over there before it comes here. Any delay will allow it to grow stronger, the better to attack us. If we fail to stop ISIS aggression now, we're following in the footsteps of British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain at Munich. Chamberlain's move to avoid war in 1938 made Hitler all the stronger in the war that broke out only a year later. Better to take the fight to the enemy while he is still weak, rather than standing back and allowing him to grow stronger.
For the opposition, in contrast, the government's plan for an extremely limited military involvement in Iraq is the first step into an inescapable quagmire: the nightmare of the Vietnam war. It will be, they say, a moral quagmire, marked by alliances with reprehensible characters, just like Vietnam. Didn't the Prime Minister say our planes won't hit Syrian targets unless we have the permission of the government, a.k.a. mass murderer Bashar Assad? And even as this war saps us ethically, it will drain us of blood and treasure. It starts with advisers, as America's involvement in Vietnam did, but it inevitably escalates – how can it not? – into a full-scale land war in Asia. If you're in for a penny, you're in for a thousand body bags.
And the truth? Neither. The case for war, or more precisely Canada's direct involvement in a war that will go on with or without us, is not as clear-cut as backers would like. But the argument that Canadians can best express moral outrage and agency by choosing to do nothing, or nothing that involves meeting force with force, or that a decision to use a limited amount of force is like writing a blank cheque, is even less compelling.
Some of the rhetoric on both sides has been as thoughtful as a misfired dumb bomb. But rhetorical combat is not the same as war. In the former, the main casualty is a sense of proportion.
There is a compelling case for Canadian involvement in the fight against ISIS. The government hasn't made it perfectly – but it has made it. On balance, Canadians should support the government's decision to send six fighter jets, two surveillance aircraft and a tanker, along with a handful of special forces acting as trainers, all as part of a coalition of Western and Middle Eastern allies. The government is right that the mission, which is to last six months, need not necessarily be expanded or extended. Canada is choosing to go in. Canadians can similarly choose how and when to get out.
The arguments in favour of war? There is a growing humanitarian catastrophe of epic proportions. There is a real threat that the war, and ISIS, will spread beyond Syria and Iraq. And we and our allies have military means that may be able to alter that situation.
Can we address the root causes of the conflict, or more precisely conflicts, that beset the multiple factions and shifting alliances of Mesopotamia? For the most part, no. Do Western policy-makers understand this? Well enough to recognize that the objective of remaking the region in our image is not in the cards.
The region is a place whose nuances don't lend themselves easily to our desire for pristine moral clarity. For example, the Iraqi Kurds who appear to be the focus of much of the Canadian support are not an independent state, but rather a not entirely voluntary part of Iraq – and Iraq's central government, long dominated by Shiites, is partly to blame for the rise of ISIS. That Iraqi government also does not welcome too much Kurd independence. Neither does Turkey. Across the border in Syria, in fact, the Syrian Kurds defending the town of Kobani on the Syria-Turkey border claim they are getting more hindrance than help from the Turks; Turkey for its part is concerned that the main Syrian Kurdish group is allied with Turkey's PKK, which is treated as a terrorist group by Turkey and many other countries. Meanwhile, on the other side of Syria, one of the main groups fighting ISIS is Hezbollah. This week, it planted bombs across the Lebanon-Israel border, likely to remind supporters that, though it is fighting ISIS today, its core business is confronting Israel.
It's a messy neighbourhood.
But we need not be paralyzed. Canada has a chance to make a difference in the lives of millions of people. We can assist our allies on the ground, particularly the Kurdish peshmerga of northern Iraq, in defeating ISIS forces attacking them. This is no small thing. Iraqi Kurdistan is an island of stability and tolerance in the region. Locked in battle with ISIS, it deserves our support. Even the opposition agrees; the Liberals say they want the Canadian military to be part of the international coalition – just not in a combat role.
Canada should act in Iraq. The government should report regularly to Parliament. And in the coming months, the country can assess the policy, and the results.
Editor's Note: An earlier version of this editorial incorrectly said that "Syrian Kurds defending the town of Kobani on the Syria-Turkey border claim they are getting more help than hindrance from the Turks" when, in fact, they are claiming the opposite. This online version has been corrected.