Corporeality III: Trudeau and ISIS
Inspired by the failure of the international community to intervene in the Rwanda genocide in 1994, in the beginning of the twenty-first century, Canada was the major initiator of the doctrine: “The Responsibility to Protect” (R2P). The Liberal Party of Canada when Lloyd Axworthy was Foreign Minister under Prime Minister Jean Chretien had given birth to that doctrine that endorsed military intervention when a state failed to fulfil its responsibilities and war crimes, crimes against humanity, religious cleansing and even genocide were all rampant. We do not hear much about R2P anymore since it was endorsed by the United Nations unanimously just over ten years ago because R2P proved to be both hypocritical in its passage and inapplicable in practice. The doctrine presumed that sovereignty was not absolute but rather a delegated authority by the international community and could be breached by that same international community if a state failed in the primary duty if it was either unable or unwilling to protect its citizens from genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes and ethnic cleansing.
The passage was hypocritical because countries like China voted for R2P as long as it observed the principle of the absolute sovereignty of a state and military intervention was permissible only with the permission of that state. R2P was inapplicable because, when military intervention was most needed in failing states, powerful states suspected one another of practicing power politics and interfering in the domestic affairs of another state for their own political interests.
In the case of Iraq, was this not a perfect instance for the applicability of humanitarian intervention, especially since the government of Iraq had itself invited that intervention? In Syria and Iraq, minorities were under constant attack – the Yazidis and Chaldeans ae a few examples. Further, the United Nations itself had endorsed such intervention in the fight against terrorism. On 19 September 2014, the UN Security Council, as it welcomed the newly-elected Iraqi government, did not simply endorse but urged international support for the Iraqi government’s fight against ISIS (S/PRST/2014/20). This was followed up on 19 November 2014 with a statement of the President of the Security Council, endorsed with the full authority of the SC, that called for international cooperation in combating terrorism and the threats posed by foreign terrorist fighters, violent extremism, Al-Quaida and the Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS). One year later on 20 November, the UNSC called on its member states “to take all necessary measures on the territory under the control of ISIS to prevent terrorist acts committed by ISIS and other Al-Quaida affiliates.”
The Liberal Party under Justin Trudeau had assumed office in Canada at the time that the last UN resolution was passed. Given its past and current policies of renewing Canada’s traditional record of engagement in the international sphere and with the United Nations, one might have expected that the Justin Trudeau government would step up its involvement in Iraq in the fight against Al-Quaida and ISIS. But that did not seem to be the case.
It was not as if Canada had been totally immune from attacks by Islamicist terrorists on Canadian soil or had not been used as a transit stop for terrorists heading for the U.S. On 14 December 1999, Ahmed Ressam had been arrested as a result of a very alert American customs guard when Ressam tried to enter the U.S. on the car ferry between Victoria and the U.S., a car that was packed with explosives intended for use in a plot to bomb the Los Angeles International Airport on New Year’s Eve as part of the planned 2000 millennium attacks. In 2006, in Ontario, Canadian counter-terrorism forces rounded up 18 al-Quaida-inspired terrorists to attack and set off bombs at the CBC in Toronto and the parliament buildings in Ottawa with the intention of capturing and beheading the Canadian Prime Minister and other political leaders. In August 2010, Misbahuddin Ahmed was arrested and subsequently convicted for his involvement in facilitating terrorism. In 2013, Chiheb Esseghaier and Raed Jaser were arrested for their involvement in a plot to derail a Toronto-New York train. In July 2013 in British Columbia, John Stewart Nuttall and Amanda Korody were arrested for planning to plant pressure cooker bombs in the provincial legislature.
Canadians were not always lucky in avoiding actual terrorist acts. In a ramming attack, not uncommon in Israel but rare here, Martin Couture-Rouleau, a recent Muslim convert, struck two members of the Canadian Armed Forces and killed warrant officer Patrice Vincent. On 22 October 2014, Michael Zehaf-Bibeau, another recent convert to Islam, gunned down 24-year-old Corporal Nathan Cirillo standing guard at the War Memorial in front of the Parliament buildings in Ottawa and might have done considerably more damage if he had not been killed within the building by the head of the Parliamentary Security Services.
These plans and actual attacks, for the most part, may just have been inspired by Al-Quaida and ISIS, but they alone provided sufficient motive for Canada to join the war against Daesh (ISIS) – which Canada did under Prime Minister Stephen Harper. Just over a year ago, the Harper government agreed to participate actively in the war against Daesh and in March of 2015 reconfirmed that commitment for another year. The new Liberal government under Justin Trudeau had different plans. In his very first press conference, Trudeau announced the government’s intention of keeping its pledge to withdraw Canadian fighter jets from the battle against Al-Quaida and ISIS in Iraq. But he also pledged to stay in the battle, no longer directly, but by using Canadian forces to train Iraqi forces to do battle with Al-Quaida and ISIS.
But how does this square with the historical tradition of the Liberal Party in support of R2P, with Canada’s liberal tradition of involvement with UN sanctioned missions, with Canada’s own self- interest in defeating Al-Quaida and ISIS, and with a fourth source of legitimating Canadian direct military involvement, the call by President Hollande of France following the coordinated terrorist attacks in Paris on 13 November 2015 to participate in the war against Al-Quaida and ISIS? Under both the EU and NATO’s doctrine of mutual defence invoked when President Hollande declared war on ISIS. Canada under its treaty obligations was called upon to actively join the direct war effort against Daesh. Instead, Canada seemed to be opting out of the direct combat against Al-Quaida and ISIS.
“What we’re doing right now is working with our allies and coalition partners looking at how best Canada can continue to help militarily in substantive ways that offer real help in a way that is specifically lined up with our capacities as Canadians.” This, in various iterations, has been Trudeau’s explanation for plans to withdraw six Canadian fighter jets from the battle. In what sense has this been working with partners when it has been clear that Canada’s military partners do not endorse the withdrawal? Canada’s allies have not responded well to the Canadian government decision to withdraw the six fighter aircraft. When U.S. Defence Secretary Ash Carter in an effort to enhance member contributions summoned American allies – including Australia, France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands and the UK – Canada was conspicuously excluded. America responded in diplomatic-speak to queries about Canada’s non-invitation. “The United States and Canada are great friends and allies, and together with coalition partners, we will continue to work to degrade and destroy ISIL.” Three Republican congressmen initiated an investigation of Trudeau for supporting ISIL.
In what sense is the involvement of Canadian fighter jets out of line with Canadian capacities? Is active involvement in such a legitimate war not the best way for Canadian fighter pilots to gain experience in actual combat? Trudeau offered a threefold explanation. Canada should do what it does best. Other alternatives of involvement were better options in the war. Third, Trudeau had pledged to withdraw the fighters in the election campaign and was beholden to the Canadian electorate to carry out what he promised to do. “We do some things better than just about anyone else in the world and looking at our capacity to do that in smarter ways is exactly what Canadians asked me to do in the last election campaign.” It is part of a division of responsibilities and Canada should serve in a role in which it has a competitive advantage. It was an explanation he repeated many times, including statements made to a G20 summit in Turkey just after the Paris November massacres.
The third explanation of fulfilling promises made in an election is certainly valid, but did not the 13 November massacres in Paris change the equation? Did not President Hollande’s call for directly joining the war against ISIS demand an alteration in promises made? Why was it an either/or proposition – training Iraqi soldiers versus the use of fighter jets? Both might be appropriate. Finally, to declare that what Canada does better than anyone else is training foreign military forces seemed the height of conceit as well as blatantly false. Though Canada has Canadian soldiers offering tactical training on the ground – for example 250 in Ukraine – as well as offering financial support and training for strengthening democratic institutions, this hardly seems to be the main priority in Iraq and Syria. Even if the boast about Canadian unique capacities happened to be true, it is not as if Canadians can avoid involvement in combat. In December, Canadians training Kurdish Peshmerga forces were subject to a three-pronged attack by Daesh forces and the Canadian forces became actively involved in the two-day battle supported in the air by two Canadian hornets in addition to other allied aircraft. A ground involvement would not obviate participating in the air war, especially since the Canadian armed forces boast of the successes of its 13 missions in November and its 8 in December. Further, in the light of the casualties taken in the seemingly fruitless 8-year involvement in Afghanistan in the fight against the Taliban, Canadians seem more wary of having troops on the ground than in the air.
What about the other parts of Canada’s Operation IMPACT and the Canadian air contribution to the Middle East Stabilization Force (MESF) to halt and degrade Daesh in both Iraq and Syria? Canada boasts that as part of its participation, Daesh has lost the ability to operate freely in 20-25% of the populated areas in Iraq under its control. Daesh has lost a great deal of infrastructure and equipment. In addition to the six CF-18 Hornet fighters, Canada contributes a CC-150T Polaris refueller and two CP-140M Aurora surveillance aircraft. Nothing has been said that I know of about withdrawing them. But how important would retaining them in the field be if the six Hornets are withdrawn?
It is not as if the Canadian air forces have been underused having, by the end of January, conducted over 2,000 sorties, about two-thirds by its fighter jets, one-sixth by the refueller and one-sixth by its surveillance aircraft. In addition to the air crews, what about the crews on the ground required to support the fliers – the liaison and planning personnel, the logistics people, those officers working in command and control, and the ground crews? The reality is that all Canadian troops overseas in the war against Daesh are combat troops in some sense.
One argument not used at all is the ineffectiveness of the campaign against Daesh and al-Quaida. That is for three reasons. Since Trudeau contends that Canada will continue to be involved in the train-and-assist mission, a revised policy on these lines would be incoherent. Secondly, such a rationale would prompt close examination of the mission and reveal how critical air support has been to the success of the train-and-assist mission. Third, the examination would reveal how successful the air mission has been in degrading and setting back ISIS. The last has a corollary harking back to R2P. The sooner the mission is completely successful, the sooner the people of Mosul and Fallujah will be free of the tyranny of ISIS and the practice of hoarding food for their fighters while the local population is left to starve.
U.S. Army Lt. Gen. Sean MacFarland has stated:
- The mission has forced the enemy in Iraq to give up terrain, ejecting Daesh from Beiji and its nearby oil refinery and from Ramadi where defense forces were deeply entrenched;
- The train-and-assist mission has already succeeded in training 17,500 Iraqi troops, 2,000 police with another 3,000 soldiers and police in process;
- The mission has trained the Iraqis in how to integrate infantry, armor, artillery, air power (my italics), engineers, etc. in coordinated attacks;
- The Syrian Democratic Forces, including Syrian Kurds, Syrian Arabs and others “have made dramatic gains against the enemy in northern and eastern Syria, while the vetted Syrian opposition and other groups are holding the enemy back along what we call the Mara line in northwest Syria;”
- None of the above would have been possible “without coalition air support.”
Discount some of these claims as embroidered. Nevertheless the mission has been and continues to be successful. Essentially, Justin Trudeau seems to believe that, motivated by fear, a response to terror with force only succeeds in inducing greater radicalization among Islam’s adherents. The angry extremists and terrorists are out there because of what we Westerners have done in the past. Trudeau has evidently not read, or, if he has, he disagrees with Joby Warrick’s description of the rise of ISIS in his book Black Flags. Daesh did not arise in response to George W. Bush’s terribly mistaken invasion of Iraq, but with the help of the Bush administration that enormously raised the profile of an obscure Jordanian street tough, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. He learned that terror, the bloodier the better, was the best means of getting America to sell his message. Zarqawi offered the militant match to Donald Trump’s belief that the greater the quantity of insults shot off with a scatter gun, the more publicity, the higher your profile and the greater your chances of becoming President of the U.S. The jihadists just wanted to create a caliphate over the whole Middle East.
If the argument were left there, we would be stranded, for the arguments on the basis of tactics and strategies leave us bereft of any understanding. Trudeau appears to be left standing on quicksand. But that is fundamentally a decision not to comprehend his position. For in the end he is not arguing about the best tactics and strategies to combat and defeat ISIS, but about identity, Canada’s identity in a world of realpolitik. Canada is a peaceable kingdom with a very successful multicultural policy. What we do in foreign affairs and the defence of Canadian citizens must be carried out with this as the first premise. The use of military force must be a last resort and used only when diplomacy and working to improve government have crashed against a cement wall. Even then the use of military force will be very small.
That approach apparently would not even change as a result of an increase in homegrown terrorism. A successful attack would not change Canadian policy. Responding with a declaration of war is wrong for Trudeau. That is NOT how attacks at home or abroad should affect us – by stirring up our militancy and our paranoia and fear. In the case of the latter, reinforcing Canadian intelligence services would only mean reinforcing the surveillance of those intelligence services to ensure they do not abrogate our freedoms. This is the claim of the son of Pierre Trudeau who introduced the draconian War Measures Act against what was relatively a pinprick by the FLQ.
So how do we assess Justin Trudeau and the Liberal Party’s position when placing military and strategic considerations within the context of identity politics? By examining some other miscues of the government unrelated to Daesh, Iraq or Syria we might gain some further insight.
With the help of Alex Zisman
Tomorrow: Trudeau, the domestic body politic and defining the body politic of Canada