On the Politics of ISIS – Harper as Statesman

You can always recognize a statesman. They’re upright in suits, giving speeches, gesturing forcefully, imploring action. They’re a breed of person who rises to face the challenge of his day. How they meet that challenge will decide their legacy. Facing Stephen Harper today is the extremism of the Islamic State. His stance has been unequivocal, his conviction firm, his ideas true. It is Harper as statesman.

The ISIS Challenge

The Islamic State is a grotesque group. Bringing terror in their wake, they’ve claimed a swathe of territory in Iraq and Syria. Their flag flies in clear sight from NATO-member Turkey’s southern border. Everyone agrees that ISIS is a major threat to the stability of the region, and, if allowed to fester, ISIS may even pose a serious threat to countries as far away as Canada and the US. ISIS must be confronted.

ISIS ThreatStephen Harper has been vocal on the issue for some time, mirroring his aggressive tone toward Russia’s action in Ukraine. With singular focus, Harper has demonstrated a self-proclaimed “principled” approach to foreign policy. His push to confront ISIS militarily is a natural progression in his staunch, robust perception of international relations and events. It is Harper as statesman.

The Statesman’s Challenge

Statesmen have stiff, unbending postures. Opposition parties have peppered the Harper government with questions for weeks. Not until Friday, Oct. 3rd, did Harper stand in parliament and present his case for war, perhaps the most important duty performed by the head of state, the lead statesman.

Harper presented his case with characteristic absoluteness. The problem is clear, he said. ISIS is a murderous and apocalyptic regime that poses a direct threat to Canadians. Canada has been directly threatened by ISIS militants. Our allies are taking action. To stand on the sidelines while others engage militarily would be to abrogate one’s moral responsibility and authority. He clearly presented his stance and his reasons for marching to war. It was a statesmanlike display, a rousing call to action, to arms. It was Harper as statesman.

Calling to action is a statesman’s game. Action is a statesman’s game. When opposition parties don’t respond to your call to action, it can be frustrating as a statesman. Opposition slows the action, providing time for reflection. Both the NDP and the Liberals have come out against military action. While Harper’s stance and reasoning were clearly presented, nothing in his speech outlined the critical aspects of war that, on further reflection, should give pause.

Aspects of war such as defined objectives, assessment of costs, likelihood of accomplishment, exit strategy; these are the foundations of a well-argued presentation for war. While Harper, in statesmanlike fashion, took an aggressive, absolutist moral position, the presentation of ISIS as evil is not a comprehensive mission statement. It doesn’t move those other aspects of war beyond consideration. Some well-respected statesmen over the years have shared the same fault as Stephen Harper. It is the lack of that age-old form of leadership that earns opposition, public, and international respect: diplomacy.

“A Decade of Diplomatic Darkness”

Diplomats are negotiators, consensus builders. The Harper government’s inability to engage in diplomacy at home and abroad has delivered predictable results. Roland Paris, director of the Centre for International Policy Studies and associate professor in the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs at the University of Ottawa, writes:

Stephen-HarperSince Mr. Harper failed to win Canada a Security Council seat in 2010, he and his ministers have derided the UN for its “moral relativism.” He has twice taken the unusual step of travelling to New York during the fall gathering of world leaders but pointedly declining to address the General Assembly – a clear, even petulant snub…

Tactless attempts to pressure the White House into approving the Keystone XL pipeline have placed new strains on the relationship.

Canada’s standing in multilateral bodies has also diminished. Prior to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, NATO officials publicly wondered why Canada seemed to be disengaging from the alliance. Now, in response to the Ukraine crisis, Ottawa is making a modest contribution to NATO’s reinforcement in Eastern Europe, while Mr. Harper talks as though Canada were preparing to march on Kiev.

Canada used to be a leader in multilateral arms control, spearheading the campaign against anti-personnel land mines. Now, we are laggards, the only NATO member that still hasn’t signed the Arms Trade Treaty on conventional weapons.

Canada became the only country in the world to withdraw from the UN Convention to Combat Desertification – just before Germany held a major meeting on the issue, undoubtedly irritating Berlin.

At the UN, Canada has been active on a few issues, such as maternal and child health, but otherwise has developed a reputation for being disengaged on many issues and obstreperous on others. Some observers suggest that Canadian representatives are not being invited to the informal meetings where states devise strategies on international issues.

Rather than maintaining the virtuous circle of effective bilateral and multilateral diplomacy, Canada has been marginalizing itself. Tub-thumping on a handful of issues is presented as “strong, principled leadership,” but the results speak for themselves. Trade deals with the European Union and South Korea are bright lights in almost a decade of diplomatic darkness.

It is Harper as diplomat.

ISIS & the UN

Public and opposition reluctance to engage ISIS militarily is largely due to a lack of clarity and focus on the mission’s purpose. ISIS is evil, they must be… Confronted? Degraded? Destroyed? To what end? How? For how long? No amount of statesmanlike calls to action can answer these important questions. Only a case for war with focused objectives, defined goals, and honesty of likelihood of success should pass as a just cause for war. And that presentation should be made at the UN, with diplomatic fortitude and vigilance.

Although losing the Security Council seat for the first time in the UN’s history is a slight to Harper and Canada, that need not deter a true leader, one whose strengths are equal parts statesman and diplomat. Opposition parties and the Canadian public are rightfully cynical about being dragged into a prolonged conflict in Iraq and Syria. There is significant support for action in Canada, but there is little consensus domestically and internationally about whether another Western military intervention is the proper course of action. Leaders pushing their countries to war have a responsibility to present their case, fully. Public skepticism and opposition intransigence would vanish overnight with a UN resolution. A UN mandated mission would also ensure prolonged public support for what is, by all accounts, going to be a long-term commitment. If public support plummets at the first sign of trouble, a legally engaged-in war is much easier to swallow.

Unfortunately, there is one thing Harper disdains more than public opinion and opposition reluctance: the UN. Imagine the tightening of his jaw whenever he’s forced to recognize the centre of global internationalism, a place where he might take initiative and lead a diplomatic effort to gain international support and legality through the UN Security Council. Other than the staunchly conservative wings of the Conservative Party, a majority of Canadians support the UN and believe Canada can project its middle-power status through effective internationalism.

Without UN support, such as the case of Iraq in 2003, Canadians do not support sending in the military. Jean Chrétien’s refusal to join the US-led invasion was hugely popular, to the considerable chagrin of then opposition leader Stephen Harper. That invasion, which our current government would have gleefully supported, proved to be a superfluous war that led to the vacuous space ISIS now fills. Without UN support now, the public acceptance of going to war in Iraq is likely to fade, and quickly. Returning the Canadian military into the Middle East quagmire without UN support is not a position Canadians are used to. If (read: when) the realization sets in that ISIS cannot be defeated with air strikes, will Canadians accept being further dragged into the conflict? Or, will they happily stomach pulling out the military while atrocities continue in a bomb-ridden, far-away nation? Will Canada’s security have been protected by dropping bombs only? When land and cities and lives are destroyed through prolonged bombing and terror, a peaceful environment does not tend to take root, out of which the strength of civil society allows democracy to flourish.

Gun-barrel democracy requires guns, not bombs. Securing and protecting civil society requires boots on the ground. Air strikes don’t build nations; diplomats with focused objectives and defined goals do. Statesmen can call their country to arms, but without prolonged support at home for a serious, long-term, and costly war that involves a far-greater commitment than the current mission parameters, the bombs will fall, the warplanes will leave, the extremists will return, and the cycle will continue.

Go Big or Go Home – A Painful Truth

Robert R. Fowler, Senior Fellow at the University of Ottawa’s Graduate School of Public and International Affairs and the author of A Season in Hell: My 130 Days in the Sahara with Al Qaeda, served as a foreign-policy adviser to three Canadian prime ministers, as personal representative to Africa for three others, and as deputy minister of national defence, and was Canada’s longest-serving ambassador to the United Nations. His article in the Globe & Mail is a sober assessment of the ISIS challenge, about which he writes:

We got it wrong in Iraq, then again in Afghanistan, then in Egypt, then in Libya, and since the outset in Syria. Our values are not their values, nor are they universal (which is why Stephen Harper’s and John Baird’s trumpeting of a “values-based foreign policy” is ignorant and pretentious)…

ISIS (1).jpg[ISIS] know the propaganda value of poking sticks into American eyes, or knives into Western throats. They understand the extent to which we in the West are casualty-shy, and that the effectiveness of our actions is crippled by collective attention deficit disorder. They know full well that ill-informed and poorly executed Western forays into “Muslim lands” have been disastrous for us – and they are anxious to lure us into further folly. They are confident that by so doing they will dramatically increase their recruiting base, their authority, and the scope and impact of their movement; and they simply do not give a damn about the numbers they will lose in the process. Truly, in their eyes, such losses are a blessing.

Our coalition’s mission will inevitably creep. And our incapacitating allergy to boots-on-the-ground and our refusal to accept that it is impossible to control great swaths of territory from the air (just look at Libya today) will mean – as in Afghanistan and Iraq – that we will bomb ever more; that predators will hunt more widely and more indiscriminately; and that we will kill and maim many, many more innocent civilians than the caliphate could behead in its wildest dreams.

Finally, and however improbably in today’s politically correct context, we would have to “maintain the aim” – the removal of an existential threat to our way of life through the crippling degradation of al-Qaeda and its clones – and make it abundantly clear that until that mission were truly accomplished, such a struggle would not be about those nice, distracting things politicians would much rather talk about when they talk about such engagements: development, jobs, democracy, corruption, individual rights, gender equality, faith.

We would also have to accept that, to achieve such an objective, it would take vast budgets and clear-eyed focus over the long haul to convince Muslims in the West and throughout the world that such an engagement had nothing to do with jihadi allegations about crusades; indeed, little to do with religion of any stripe, but rather that global jihad was simply inimical to a peaceful world. Once such a mission were truly accomplished, then and only then could we turn our attention to reconstruction and development.

Short of all this, it’s not worth attempting, and we should walk away, right now: A flaccid attempt, such as that upon which we now seem to be embarked, will undoubtedly make matters worse.

Harper as Statesman, and Nothing More

Stephen Harper is not the leader to call Canada to this type of action. The limited engagement put forward by Harper and the international coalition now striking ISIS is fraught with problems. Wars that lack defined objectives, focused goals, and comprehensive conflict-management strategies have been tried in Iraq before. The result is ISIS. The black and white, absolutist thinking presented by Harper-like hawks does not reflect the muddied, nuanced challenge that ISIS presents. A case for war that amounts to “they’re bad, they threatened us, all our friends are doing it, let’s go!” is not a case at all, says Michael Den Tandt at the National Post.

Fact: Without the Second Iraq War, there would be no Islamic State. Fact: Canadian warplanes supported Islamic fighters in Libya, and Canadian warplanes will now be bombing those same fighters in Iraq. A frustrating fact: Presenting ISIS as “pure evil” that must be challenged is not moral clarity, it is moral relativism. I’ll let Ian Macdonald explain:

Congo FightingBack in July, Barack Obama signed an executive order punishing anyone responsible for some of the hideous excesses of the Congolese civil war.

Hardly anyone noticed Obama’s order. But for the record, the people it targets have reportedly committed: mass rape (of men and women, by rebels and government soldiers) often in front of communities and families, or forcing people to rape each other, as a weapon of war; inventive torture (forcing men to copulate with holes in the ground lined with razor blades, forcing women to eat excrement or flesh of relatives); casual and varied forms of murder (including firing weapons up women’s vaginas); use of child soldiers; and ethnic cleansing.

The list goes on.

The Congo war has killed five million people, directly and indirectly, since 1998 — more than the wars in Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq put together, as one national newspaper here noted recently.

Compared to the acts committed by Kabila’s military and the rebels fighting it, and the interventions by neighbouring Rwanda, the 20,000 or so fighters of ISIS are tenderfoot apprentices in the atrocity business…

[ISIS] is denounced as “the heart of darkness,” (Obama), a “death cult” (Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott) and a genocidal terrorist caliphate (Stephen Harper).

None of those leaders spends much time at all talking about the Congo (the subject was last raised in the Canadian House of Commons three years ago)…
ISIS, meanwhile, made the gross error of beheading some white people, and has taken over oil refineries, and sold the oil, and threatened the order of things, and there are few crimes more serious than that.

Given that groups with greater horrific barbarity are acting around the world with impunity, that military sacrifice in Libya and Afghanistan has done little to improve those nation’s security, it is no wonder “that Canadians will be skeptical of joining another high-minded, unfocused international effort to stop Islamist extremists in their tracks.” Harper’s lack of leadership has done little to answer the legitimate questions concerning “the risks to Canadian military personnel, the estimated long-term costs, the coalition’s strategic objectives, measures of success, and an exit strategy.”

Opposition parties are right to withhold their support whether or not the Canadian public (for now) supports the mission. As statesman, Harper has provided little assurance that Canada, by engaging militarily now, won’t be committed to further, deeper engagement in the future. He has gone so far as to state that Canada would be willing to attack targets in Syria, as long as the murderous Assad regime – international pariah until a month ago – gives us permission to bomb his enemies for him.

Jeffrey Simpson writes:

No one in the bombing countries should assume anything but a campaign lasting many years, with very imprecise ambitions and shifting targets. The campaign would require war in two countries simultaneously, political reconciliation of a kind not seen in either, unprecedented co-operation from and among outside players (Iran, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States), and an understanding of the societies of those countries that the bombing countries do not possess.

Harper’s call to action was that of a statesman, a call to arms with limited foresight. The Canadian public deserves an open and willing account of what we’re getting into, and what the limits of our actions will be. Instead, we are given the teeth-pulling affair that passes for parliamentary accountability with this government. Canadians deserve better from their head statesman, particularly in matters of war.



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