Skip to main content

Derek H. Burney was Canada's ambassador to the U.S. from 1989-1993. He was directly involved in negotiating the Free Trade Agreement with the U.S.; Fen Osler Hampson is a distinguished fellow and director of Global Security at the Centre for International Governance Innovation and Chancellor's Professor (on leave) at Carleton University. They are the authors of Brave New Canada: Meeting the Challenge of a Changing World.

When he offered the American public a strategy for "degrading and ultimately destroying [Islamic State]", President Barack Obama was trying to clamber out of a box he had largely created for himself. But the President is no Houdini. His foreign policy approval numbers have plunged to a stunning all-time low of 32 per cent. Americans are horror-struck by the gruesome beheadings of two U.S. journalists and want strong, decisive action. But the President, a reluctant warrior in any crisis, is now obliged to try to fill the power vacuum he had helped create in Iraq and Syria through his own indecision and inaction.

Having said, too candidly perhaps, that he did not have a strategy on IS, the President improvised on the fly. But his new plan announced on the eve of the 13th anniversary of September 11 has more than a few gaps. Expanding U.S. air strikes "possibly" to Syria, adding 475 military advisers to "bolster" the Iraqi army and calling for a broad, but as yet imprecise coalition, do not constitute a comprehensive strategy. The President's aversion to putting "boots on the ground" coincides with his earlier decision to withdraw U.S. forces from Iraq and the pending pullout from Afghanistan. With hindsight, the Iraqi withdrawal was premature as we have seen with the clearly inept performance of U.S.-trained Iraqi forces and the even greater political ineptitude of the Iraqi government.

There is an air of unreality in the President's announcement now to arm "moderates" in Syria. Has he not noticed that those so-called moderates are beyond repair? That tactic would have helped when it was requested months ago and before IS captured more than a third of Syria and knocked most moderates out of commission. Too little far too late is not a strategy. It is a cop-out.

The commitments from key regional players are likewise vague and support is tepid. Some may understandably wonder whether Mr. Obama is genuinely committed to "degrade and destroy" or simply tacking to get out in front of changing public opinion at home that is now demanding some form of revenge. The Saudis have offered to help train moderate Sunni fighters in Iraq, but that still begs the question whether they are prepared to join the military campaign against IS or halt their own funding of extremist Sunni groups. Will Turkey play a tangible role and act to constrain the flow of arms and materiel to IS across its own porous borders? What about Jordan and the Gulf States? All have more to fear from IS than the U.S. and its erstwhile western allies and air power by itself cannot reclaim territory seized by IS.

Secretary of State John Kerry is on yet another whirlwind tour trying to muster more than faint rhetorical support from the regional players, but his speed in the air is more evident than the depth of his negotiating skills. In any event, it is not assured from one day to the next that he and the President are operating from the same copybook.

Congress will also be sensitive to the public mood in America for retribution, especially in the run up to November elections, and is, at least initially, cutting the President some slack. But this is now Mr. Obama's war and it is one that can no longer be charged exclusively to the George W. Bush account. The President's claim that he wants the IS strategy to be as successful as that in Yemen and Somalia is laughable as a premise. How is success to be measured? By that glib standard, Libya would also qualify as success.

The rationale for Canada's military involvement is said to be about "values" and yet alliance solidarity is probably the principal driver as much in response to overtures from the U.K. as those from Washington. We should definitely take a cue from London on how best to deal with returning IS fighters, which is the real threat to our security interests.

Our special forces are among the best in the world and more than capable of dangerous assignments. In choosing to support the Kurds, we are at least aligned with the one potentially viable entity in this fractured region. But our contribution would certainly be better if there was more confidence in, and a clearer understanding of, the leadership and the game plan being designed for a conflict about which we know far too little.

Although IS has captured global attention with its murderous beheadings and highly effective social media campaign, Iran is ultimately a much greater threat to regional and global security. Unlike IS, Iran is a full-fledged state that not only supports terrorist groups in the region like Hamas and Hezbollah and dictators like Syria's Bashar al-Assad, but also harbours dangerous nuclear ambitions that threaten all of its Arab neighbors and Israel. The six power talks with Iran have stalled. The July 20, 2014, target for a comprehensive agreement to halt Iran's nuclear program came and went. Of the 19,000 centrifuges Iran has assembled, more than half are fully operational and Iran has so far refused to reduce that number or put its nuclear reactor on ice.

IS is clearly an immediate threat that must be confronted but the region's more consequential danger is Iran whose nuclear ambitions are fuelled by the uncertain trumpet of western resolve.

Interact with The Globe