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The Debate

Should Canada send its military into Iraq to fight the terrorist militia Islamic State, also known as ISIL and ISIS? That question has been the subject of heated exchanges in the House of Commons this week, especially between Conservative Foreign Minister John Baird and NDP Opposition Leader Thomas Mulcair, both of whom we have brought here to debate the question in detail. On Friday, Prime Minister Stephen Harper was to unveil plans to expand Canada’s small advisory mission into a full-scale military action by sending CF-18 fighters and other aircraft to bomb IS targets. Is this another decade-long quagmire like Iraq or Afghanistan, or is it a crucial cause for Canada’s military to assist in ending a genocidal campaign? Read Mr. Baird’s and Mr. Mulcair’s opinions, then comment, and vote.

The Debaters

Debate contributor
John BairdMinister of Foreign Affairs
Canada has a duty to act
Debate contributor
Thomas MulcairNDP leader, Official Leader of the Opposition
The case has not been made for war

The Discussion

Debate contributor

John Baird : Having returned from Iraq with my colleagues from opposition parties last month, I told a House of Commons committee:

I ask that as we consider whether or how we act, we also consider what happens if we don’t act. It might seem convenient to brush options off as leading to mission creep in the future. But the hard reality is that inaction is not an option.”

For most Canadians, the devastation in Iraq is something only witnessed on nightly newscasts, or in media. Very few will ever feel the pounding heat of Baghdad in the summer or smell the stench of sprawling IDP (internally displaced persons) camps that host tens of thousands of people.

Accordingly, some Canadians believe Canada has no stake in Iraq. Some think we should simply sit on the sidelines, provide only humanitarian assistance, and put our heads in the sand as another conflict rages in the Middle East.

But this is not just another conflict. This struggle is not against a state, or even a foreign dictator. This is a struggle against a group of terrorists that rape, pillage and slaughter anything and anyone that stands in its way. This group has spread like a cancer over our Iraqi friends, and it has no intention of stopping there. Islamic State (IS) talks openly about attacking the West and expanding its so-called caliphate far beyond the Middle East, from Spain to India.

Throughout our history, Canada has done its part defending the ideals and values that have made our country the envy of the world. Canada heeds the call. Canada protects the vulnerable. Canada challenges the aggressor.

Religious minorities are being forced from their homes, or worse, murdered in cold blood. Hundreds of thousands of women and children are fleeing from their homes, or worse, being raped, enslaved or killed. This compels us to act.

Large swaths of land are controlled by this organization. Hundreds of millions of dollars are being funnelled into their accounts, and thousands of westerners are traveling to Iraq and Syria to take up their barbaric cause. This compels us to act.

If ISIL is left unchecked, there is no doubt that our interests and allies in the region, and even our own homeland will be attacked. The threats to Canada are real, and they are documented. This compels us to act.

This death cult will not negotiate for territory. They will not hear humanitarian appeals because they have no humanity. They will only be deterred by force. We cannot in good conscience leave this burden entirely to others.

And while a military component is essential in stopping this chaos from spiralling further out of control, it is not the only component. Canada’s response so far has demonstrated this multi-pronged approach.

Humanitarian assistance is essential. That’s why Canada is leading the way in providing basic necessities to those most in need. Security assistance to Iraqi forces and the Kurdish Peshmerga is also crucial. That’s why Canada has lifted more than 1.5 million pounds of equipment to Northern Iraq with Canadian assets.

Stopping the flow of financing to this obscenely well-funded terrorist group is critical. That’s why Canada is joining a Bahraini-led working group to empty IS’ pockets.

Halting the flow of foreign fighters into Iraq and Syria is also imperative. That’s why we passed the Combating Terrorism Act to make this a criminal offence.

Diplomatic support, to help Iraq towards a religiously and ethnically inclusive government is key to helping Iraqi forces secure their borders, and protect their people. Canada has provided this support.

Support for U.S. President Barack Obama’s coalition must be robust, and global. Gulf leaders in the Middle East must be around the table, and pulling their weight. I personally met with these leaders in last week to convey this message. The global response is stronger for their presence

The multi-pronged approach outlined above has been endorsed by leaders from a variety of countries and ideologies. In the U.K., social democrats stood beside Conservatives endorsing military action. In Germany, socialist leaders did the same. This isn’t a political issue. It’s a moral one.

Canada cannot stand on the sidelines when we see these atrocities. We must do our part to leave IS less powerful, not more. It will be an uphill battle - one that tackles the security challenges in the region, the growing humanitarian need, and the need for a strong united government that speaks for all its citizens and promotes pluralism and prosperity.

Canadians should be under no illusion that the threat of ISIL will be short-lived. The global effort to subdue the threat must be sustained and unwavering. However, this does not mean that Canada’s contribution is indefinite. It is not. Canada will constantly re-evaluate our role, and we will tailor our participation to the situation on the ground, the needs of our allies, and the success of our mission.

This is not a test for our government, or one of our allies. This is a test for our generation. Like the fight against tyranny in Passchendaele and the beaches of Normandy, or Communism in Eastern Europe, the struggle against terrorism will define a generation. So we must ask ourselves again: What happens if we don’t act?

This Prime Minister rightly believes that is not an option.

Debate contributor

Thomas Mulcair : Just four weeks after deploying Canadian special forces to Iraq — with no debate or vote in Parliament, Prime Minister Stephen Harper is proposing a major escalation of Canada’s involvement in that war.

A prime minister has no more sacred duty than accountability for the decision to send young Canadian women and men to fight, and perhaps die, in a foreign war. The Prime Minister is sending these troops to Iraq in your name. He wants your support for sending them there. But let’s be clear: he doesn’t want to answer any of your questions before he does it.

If you’re tempted to think that’s an exaggeration, consider Mr. Harper’s own words on the subject: “Mr. Speaker, you can understand, I neither have the will nor the desire to get into detailed discussions of military operations here.”

That’s worth repeating: The Prime Minister is sending Canadian soldiers to war in Iraq, but he doesn’t want to discuss the details before sending them there. Neither the will, nor the desire.

And it’s not just on the “details” that the Prime Minister has gone silent. Mr. Harper hasn’t outlined a broad strategic blueprint for the mission. He can’t even answer the most basic questions of fact about the length or breadth of our commitment.

What contribution have our American allies requested? No answer.

How much will this mission cost? No answer.

How long will the deployment last? What are the rules of engagement? What is our exit strategy? No answer.

These are not hypothetical questions. Only just last year was Canada’s mission in Afghanistan was finally brought to an end. It was the longest military action in Canadian history. More than 40,000 Canadian soldiers served there for more than 12 long years — 160 killed, more than 1,000 wounded and thousands more suffering from PTSD. Like Iraq, that mission began with only a handful of special forces.

Twenty-seven days ago, Conservatives insisted Canada was undertaking a one-month, non-combat mission in Iraq. But now that Canadian troops are committed, Conservatives are telling us the mission will be expanded to include airstrikes, refueling capabilities and aerial surveillance — from mission creep to mission leap.

The United States has been embroiled in this conflict for more than ten years with no end in sight. And by this, I mean not just the war in Iraq, but the war against Islamic State itself.

While the name “IS” may be new to most Canadians, the group was first formed in 2004, in the wake of the American and British invasion of Iraq. IS has since rebranded itself from “al-Qaeda in Iraq” to the “Mujahideen Shura Council” to “the Islamic State” — and now “the Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham (Syria).” But these are the very same insurgents U.S. forces have been battling for more than a decade.

Mr. Harper’s own Foreign Affairs minister, in a moment of uncharacteristic candor, acknowledged that there are “no quick fixes” in Iraq. He called the fight against IS, and groups like it, the struggle of a “generation.” That may well be an understatement.

In one of his few real answers about this mission, Mr. Harper has said his proposed military mission in Iraq would end when IS no longer has the capability to launch attacks in Iraq, Syria or abroad. That’s an objective the U.S. has been trying to achieve since the invasion of 2003.

Mr. Harper insists that this mission in Iraq will not be allowed to become a “quagmire,” but isn’t that precisely what our American allies have been facing in Iraq for the last ten years? Will Canada be stuck a decade from now, mired in a war we wisely avoid entering a decade ago? Do we have a plan for the war, and for the thousands or tens of thousands of veterans we’ll have to take care of in years after?

In Congo, through 15 years of bloodshed and 5 million dead, Stephen Harper has never suggested that military action was the solution there. In Darfur, with hundreds of thousands dead and millions displaced, Conservatives have never proposed sending in troops.

Military action is far from the only tool at Canada’s disposal, and there’s simply no evidence that joining a decade-old American war in Iraq is the best way we can contribute here.

IS has thrived in Iraq and Syria precisely because those countries lack stable, well-functioning governments capable of maintaining peace and security within their own borders. Canada’s first contribution should be to use every diplomatic, humanitarian and financial resource at our disposal to respond to the overwhelming human tragedy unfolding on the ground and strengthen political institutions in both those countries. With the hard-earned credibility Canada earned by rejecting the initial ill-advised invasion of Iraq, we are well-positioned to take that initiative.

The struggle against IS won’t end with another Western military action in Iraq and Syria. It will end by helping the people of Iraq and Syria build the political, institutional, and security capabilities they need to oppose ISIS themselves.

Canada, for its part, should not rush to war.

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