U.S. President Barack Obama’s campaign against Islamic State militants in Iraq and Syria is hastily conceived, relies on uncertain allies and risks further inflaming an already volatile region.
In Canada, the only major political party with anything resembling a sensible position on this war is Tom Mulcair’s NDP.
After days of dithering, the New Democrats have decided to oppose Canadian involvement. Mulcair made that clear Tuesday night in a Commons debate.
Few noticed, so he announced it again Wednesday.
He said, correctly, that the Conservative government is committing Canadian commandos to the conflict without being clear as to what they can plausibly accomplish once they get there.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper initially said Canada would send “several dozen” special forces as “advisers” to Kurdish irregulars fighting the militants. On Tuesday, he said the number of Canadian soldiers in Iraq will be 69.
While the prime minister has said he will review the deployment in 30 days, his government’s commitment to Obama’s war is, to all intents and purposes, open-ended.
If Obama had a coherent strategy, this might not matter. But the U.S. president does not.
He promises to miraculously “destroy and degrade” the militants without sending U.S. troops into combat.
Yet even his top military chief, Gen. Martin Dempsey, has said that American ground forces may be needed.
The U.S. president has gathered what, on paper, appears to be an impressive coalition.
But when it comes to specifics, few members of that coalition — including Muslim states — are willing to commit themselves to much.
Their reluctance is understandable. The region in which the U.S. wants to operate is a quagmire characterized by shifting alliances among actors with dubious aims.
Turkey, for instance, has no love for the Islamic State. But it also opposes the Syrian regime of Bashar Assad (which the Islamic State is fighting).
As well, Turkey is deeply suspicious of Western efforts to arm and train Kurdish militias, some of which it views as terrorist.
The U.S. is pinning its hopes on the training and arming of so-called Syrian moderates. But it is not clear that there are any moderates left in the bloody, sectarian Syrian civil war.
Indeed, Washington’s approach to Syria is reminiscent of its strategy in Afghanistan in the 1980s.
American support of allegedly pro-Western militias there helped to tip the country into anarchy and, ultimately, paved the way for the Taliban to take power.
Meanwhile, Obama’s Western allies are careful to play to their home audiences.
French President François Hollande, deeply unpopular at home for his handling of the economy, is trying to burnish his image by authorizing air strikes against militants in Iraq. But he has ruled out taking this air war to Islamic State bases in Syria.
Australia, like Canada, is sending commandos to Iraq. Like Harper, Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott claims that these 600 battle-tested soldiers will act as advisers only.
In Canada, the Afghan experience has made the politics of war particularly difficult.
Harper can gain advantage with some voters by portraying himself as a serious international player willing to wage war.
Yet it is best for him if the details and contradictions of this particular war — including any casualties — are obscured.
Justin Trudeau’s Liberals take pride in the fact that it was their party’s government that, officially at least, refused to take part in the last Iraq war.
But the Liberals are also reluctant to be seen as soft on jihadists who cut off heads.
From this comes Trudeau’s somewhat confused position. He says he will support the current mission “as designed,” as long as “we continue to have parliamentary oversight.”
Yet no one outside government knows the exact design of the current mission. And there is no parliamentary oversight.
Harper has made it clear that as far as this war is concerned, the government will do as it wishes, regardless of what MPs think. Parliament be damned.
Thomas Walkom’s column appears Wednesday, Thursday and Saturday.