Iraq debate gets heavy topspin from Canada's politicians

While ​tennis champ Rafael Nadal is the king of spin, Canada's top political players ably demonstrated in the Iraq mission debate that they could give him a run for his money.

Debate on a renewed mission to Iraq finds all parties stretching hard to make their points

Three images showing the Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper, NDP leader Tom Mulcair and Liberal leader Justin Trudeau as they rise in the House of Commons on Parliament Hill to speak about Canada's military mission in Iraq, Tuesday March 24, 2015 in Ottawa. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

In tennis, Rafael Nadal remains the king of spin. The Spaniard's fearsome forehand seems to rip the fuzz off the ball, rotating it, so it's said, at 3,200 revolutions per minute. 

In politics, though​, ​​Canada's top players could give ​Rafa some competition. Judging by the debate on a renewed battle against ISIS — the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria — Stephen Harper, Tom Mulcair and Justin Trudeau are all capable of enough revs-per-minute that Nadal might want to visit Ottawa for some lessons.

​The prime minister served first. ISIS, he declared, "has made it clear that it targets by name Canada and Canadians."

Of course, the forces of the Islamic State already have a full-time job setting up a caliphate in Iraq and Syria — and, with neither a navy nor an air force, they couldn't march on Canada if they wanted to.

As much as jihadist ideas have inspired at least two murderous attacks in Canada, this country scarcely seems more threatened than it was when, say, the Toronto 18 were plotting to paralyze the country and behead the prime minister — nine years before today's caliphate was even imagined.

Apart from that, the polls suggest that most Canadians support the Iraq mission, without being told that the barbarians are at the gate. Even so, it's an election year and Harper wants to paint his rivals into a corner. Making the threat seem more immediate can only help, so much of his rhetoric focused on the "direct threat" from the Islamic State.

"By word and by deed it represents a threat to this country," Harper told the House. "Our goal here is to deal with the threat to this country."

Far from the front

Few Kurds or Yazidis would agree that it's Canadians who are at risk. But those who already support the mission will not complain if Harper applies some extra spin to make his point. Likewise, Mulcair's supporters will not look too closely if he, too, puts a little mustard on the ball.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper makes his case for Canada expanding its fight against ISIS beyond Iraq and into Syria. (CBC)
Mulcair's case, as it was six months ago when the mission began, was that the mission is too ill-defined. ​"It must have a well-defined objective and a well-defined exit strategy​," the Opposition leader told the House​.

"​This mission has neither. The Conservatives simply have no plan.​"

Mulcair, though, offered no hint of what such a plan should be, other than having no military plan at all to counter the Islamic State. Nor did he say why it does not constitute a "well-defined objective" to bomb ISIS forces and to train Iraqi forces to defeat them. You can disagree with that plan, but you can't say it's not a plan.​

Mulcair also applied plenty of torque to his complaint that airstrikes on ISIS in Syria would place Canada in "an alliance of sorts with the brutal dictator and war criminal, Bashar al-Assad.​" It's true, of course, that there's little to choose between ISIS and Assad for sheer viciousness. But is that an argument for giving ISIS a safe haven in Syria?

As for having a plan, here's Mulcair's: "Only effective, inclusive and representative governance can end the threat from extremism in the region​," he said. How such governance is to be introduced while ISIS rules the territory was not explained.

'Never opposed' — except this time

Still, everyone knew the NDP would oppose the mission. The same could not be said of Trudeau. Many veteran Liberals thought he should have ​supported the mission from the start. But Trudeau didn't budge — even when he said he did not oppose the use of Canada's Armed Forces on principle.

"We in the Liberal Party have never been opposed to employing the lethal force of which they are capable when it clearly serves Canada’s national interest to do so. We never will be.​"

Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau speaks in the House of Commons on Tuesday. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)
​​So the Liberal leader was slicing the ball with the best of them. How, exactly, is it not in "Canada's national interest" to fight ISIS? His answer was that the national interest ​"must be clearly and rationally articulated. The mission designed to uphold that interest must have transparent objectives and a responsible plan to achieve them.​"

This is not the case here, he said. Instead, like Mulcair, he emphasized the need for a greater humanitarian effort. But neither leader said how the tide of refugees would ebb without military action against ISIS.

Of course, all three leaders also made solid points, hit hard and without spin. But pollsters say the spin isn't working anyway: the government version has not increased support and the opposition's has not diminished it.

And don't forget what happened last week, when Canada's Milos Raonic took on the maestro of spin at the Indian Wells Masters. Raonic hit hard and flat as usual — and beat Nadal in three close sets.


Terry Milewski worked in 50 countries during 38 years with the CBC. He was the CBC's first Middle East Bureau Chief, spent eight years in Washington during the Reagan, Bush and Clinton administrations and was based in Vancouver for 14 years before returning to Ottawa as senior correspondent.