Analysis

Despite questions about airstrikes, Trudeau asserts principles in fight against ISIS

While Prime Minister Justin Trudeau lays out a new approach to the fight against Islamic State, he faces questions about why he is withdrawing Canadian fighter jets from airstrikes.

'The lethal enemy of barbarism isn't hatred. It's reason'

From left: Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan, International Development Minister Marie-Claude Bibeau, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Foreign Affairs Minister Stephane Dion announced changes to Canada's contribution to the war against the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria in Ottawa on Monday. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

"In closing," the prime minister said. "I want to say one more thing."

By then, Justin Trudeau had laid out the main points of his government's new approach to combating the scourge of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), and until then he had spoken with minimal flourish. He had been straightforward and matter of fact. But now he apparently wanted to leave a rhetorical mark.

"There are those who think we should engage in heated, over-the-top rhetoric when speaking about ISIL and terrorist groups like them," he said, referring to ISIS. "We see things in a different way."

ISIS was not a credible threat to our civilization, he argued, sounding a bit like U.S. President Barack Obama. "The lethal enemy of barbarism isn't hatred. It's reason," he added, sounding a bit like his late father.   

Of his own government, he said,  "we are for what will be effective, not for what will make us feel good to say at any given moment." 

But however sound one's principles, much depends on how they are put into action. And it is the question of action on this front that has followed Trudeau for a year and a half—since his first attempt to define a doctrine on military intervention was overwhelmed by a phallic joke about the use of the nation's fighter jets.

In October 2014, the Conservatives were ready to send the military into combat against ISIS. The New Democrats were entirely opposed. Trudeau would end up somewhere in the wide gulf between the other two parties. 

In explaining himself that fall, Trudeau had laid out four principles, matters of both style and substance:

  • "That Canada does have a role to play to confront humanitarian crises and security threats in the world." 
  • "That there must be a clear mission overall and a clear role for Canada within that mission." 
  • "That the case for deploying our forces must be made openly and transparently, based on clear and reliable, dispassionately presented facts."
  • "That Canada's role must reflect the broad scope of Canada's capabilities and how best we can help."

Not morally opposed to airstrikes

The Liberal desire to end Canadian participation in airstrikes seemingly follows from that fourth idea.

Trudeau does not maintain that ISIS can be defeated without airstrikes, but the prime minister has also not ever mounted an argument specifically against airstrikes. Last month, he told the CBC's Peter Mansbridge he was not morally opposed to bombing campaigns and on Monday he conceded that "there is a role for bombing … particularly in the short term."

As well, Canada will continue to provide surveillance and refueling aircraft to assist in airstrikes. 

So why not just continue Canada's participation in airstrikes?

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau responds to questions regarding the cancellation of the bombing mission against ISIS, and the increase in the training mission and humanitarian aid to Iraq and Syria. 2:31

"We can't do everything," Trudeau said when asked the first of several questions about the CF-18s. The chief of defence staff, Gen. Jonathan Vance, later avoided a question about budgetary limitations. And somewhere here might be a question about the prime minister's commitment to effectiveness.

Ultimately, the prime minister is merely in favour of doing other things.

"Canada has many advantages … where we can actually offer the best help in a different way," Trudeau said. "And that is what we have articulated today: a complete and robust mission that engages all different aspects of where Canada is good and where we can best help offer stability and security in the region."

'Advise and assist'

On style — "that the case … be made openly and transparently" — it might be noted that Monday's announcement came with the House of Commons on break for a week. In lieu of that grand chamber, Trudeau at least explained himself in the National Press Theatre, a decidedly less grand venue, but one where he took 21 questions from reporters before making way for an open briefing from Vance and three departmental officials.

For the most part everyone spoke more or less dispassionately. And the prime minister also ended up committing to a vote on the mission (a vote that would seemingly set a precedent for the House of Commons passing judgment on non-combat operations). 

But then Trudeau was at one point asked to explain precisely what Canadian trainers would be doing on the ground in Iraq, and whether they would be near the front and marking targets. And here the prime minister came up short.

"The mission that we've engaged is an advise-and-assist mission, and that is exactly what we are going to do," he said. A short while later, from the exact same seat, Vance was clearer: Yes, Canadian trainers would be marking targets and, yes, there was a chance that they would have to engage the enemy to defend themselves.

Questions and criticism

The New Democrats now seem interested in reviving the question of what separates a "combat" mission from a "non-combat" mission, but on this particular point and in this particular moment the prime minister might have simply been clearer.

The Conservatives were quick to lament for the end of airstrikes and a majority of Canadians might even disagree with the Liberal approach, but there were notes of appreciation from the Pentagon and the White House. And if ISIS is ultimately diminished and Canada suffers no further casualties and Canadians end up able to claim some meaningful contribution to stabilizing the region, then any awkwardness in Trudeau's handling of the file might be forgotten.

Defining something like a Trudeau approach might require more examples, but in a perfect world this would be the end of it. Ideally, this would be the last time the Canadian government is made to deal with the threat of international instability. Failing that, Trudeau's philosophy of airstrikes might yet be clarified and his principles of reason might yet be tested.

Minister for International Development Marie-Claude Bibeau discusses the humanitarian aid Canada is providing as part of its new plan to combat ISIS 8:33

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