The Maclean's politics panel: On Iraq and what comes next

The Maclean's Ottawa bureau discusses the week's headlines with Cormac MacSweeney, host of Maclean's on the Hill.

Each week, the Maclean’s Ottawa bureau sits down with Cormac MacSweeney, host of Maclean’s on the Hill, to discuss the stories behind the week’s stories. This week’s edition was taped during #Can2020 at the Ottawa Convention Centre.

This week the panel’s discussion begins and ends with Canada’s role in Iraq:


Cormac MacSweeney: John, you were in the House of Commons watching that from the Press Gallery. Do you think that the Prime Minister made an effective pitch to the nation for why we should start a combat role and send our fighter jets over to Iraq and possibly Syria?

John Geddes: I think in balance it was pretty effective. But almost before thinking about the content, you have to think about the timing. You know, it was some days ago that he floated this idea of a combat role in an interview with the Wall Street Journal in New York. It’s been days since the Brits took a much more responsible seeming parliamentary process to build a bipartisan consensus in their House of Commons on this kind of thing, so the Prime Minister has taken a long time to get to this point. Now, that said, his speech today was quite effective. I thought he sketched out the parameters, laid out very clearly that he didn’t mean for this to become a combat mission with boots on the ground; it’s an airstrikes mission. Some of the main points, you know, he sold them quite effectively. Whether he has ragged the puck too long to get to this point is still a serious question.

MacSweeney: Did the lack of urgency play into this at all in the end, in the eyes of the public?

Paul Wells: I don’t think it will in the end. I was struck by the modesty of the Prime Minister’s project. This is an extraordinarily circumscribed thing. He’s getting a six-month mandate; if he wants the mission to extend beyond that he’s going to have to re-ask. Six fighters—that’s a one-third smaller deployment than France is offering—and specifically ruling out any ground involvement by Canadian troops. I mean, we’re looking at something close to one-twentieth the size of the deployment John Chrétien sent to Afghanistan, in 2002 or 2003. And so, Harper wants to ask for so little, that if the opposition parties say no, they come off as essentially quite chintzy.

MacSweeney: So John, is the opposition stuck in a tough spot here with this one because on one hand they’re saying these terrorists who are beheading people, and raping women, and doing all sorts of atrocities, they need to be stopped, but they don’t want to take part in the actual action that will physically stop these people from doing this crimes. So are they stuck in a really tough spot here?

Geddes: I think they are stuck. They’ve allowed two quite separate questions to get blurred together. One is the question of “What is the mission that Canada is being asked to carry out?” and “What is the context for it?” It’s a limited mission, as Paul says, in the context of an international coalition put together by Barack Obama, still a very popular president in Canada, so that’s the mission. They’ve allowed that to get messed together with something else, which is the way the Prime Minister plays parliamentary politics; the fact that he really hasn’t respected Parliament up to this point in this this and he hasn’t done the normal stuff of briefing the opposition leaders or their defence critics on what’s going to happen. You could go down a checklist of things he could have done to make this seem like a more methodical, more respectful, process. Instead of isolating that aspect of the Prime Minister’s way of operating, I think either Thomas Mulcair or Justin Trudeau could have done, they’ve made that case but allowed it to blur, almost sentence by sentence, into a kind of, I would say, not very convincing, denunciation of the mission itself. And I think that’s where they’ve gotten themselves into trouble.

MacSweeney: Paul, is it fair for the opposition parties to be comparing this to the former war in Iraq, because that was in both opposition leaders’ speeches today from Justin Trudeau and from Thomas Mulcair. They seemed to be trying to link these two things. Obviously the former one was a much worse war at that time.

Wells: It’s fair to make a comparison, but it invites a comparison. What strikes you is the differences at least as much as the similarities. This is not an attempt to change the regime in Iraq; it’s actually an attempt to prop up the regime in Iraq. It is not a sort of classic industrial war with hundreds of thousands of troops involved. It’s very small, so small that you could ask whether Western involvement can really make any concrete difference. And so when people say this is just like George Bush’s war in Iraq, my answer is no it’s not.  It has its own problems: hastily improvised against an enemy that is far more diffuse and far more poorly understood; you know but this isn’t George Bush’s war. It’s Barack Obama’s thing.

Geddes: There’s an old saying that generals always want to fight the last war. This is a case of politicians not wanting to fight again the last war they didn’t fight. And it really doesn’t work.

MacSweeney: I found it very interesting that we saw the Liberals, sort of take on the exact same line that the NDP had been pushing for weeks now. And now all of the sudden it seems like Justin Trudeau, just before the Prime Minister’s announcement, has been the face of the opposition narrative on this one, simply by taking on the other opposition party’s narrative in the first place.

Wells: But Trudeau is to some extent the only interesting player in this. I use the valence electron—if there was a fight against Islamic fundamentalism at low cost, you knew that Stephen Harper was going to be involved. And you were pretty sure that if Stephen Harper wanted to send the military somewhere, Thomas Mulcair would say no. So the interesting question is, which side is Trudeau on? And I admit to being surprised that he’s on the “Let’s not do it” side. I keep remembering this week, Jean Chrétien during the first Gulf War. Most of his critiques of that limited, air-strike based intervention by Brian Mulroney didn’t make a lot of sense. “Send the ships and then bring them back. Have the guys in the air on Tuesdays but not on Thursdays.” After it was done, Chrétien won a large majority government in the next election and buried the Progressive Conservative party. Maybe that’s the precedent that Justin Trudeau had in mind this week.

Geddes: Just to pick up on what Paul was saying there though, an interesting way to think about this, and I almost hate to take such a serious, international policy decision down to an electoral politics calculation but what the heck. One way to think about the problem for the Liberals and the NDP in the last few elections was splitting on the left. This is a common argument about how Prime Minister Stephen Harper stayed in power. The beauty of the Justin Trudeau experiment to date is the assertion that hey, maybe you can straddle the centre and keep votes. Maybe it doesn’t have to be a polar thing where you’re splitting the vote on the right or splitting the vote on the left. Maybe you be a centrist straddling party. The problem with this particular moment for him is that, perhaps out of conviction, I’m not sure why, he’s allowed us to revert back to what we were just talking about, just two parts of the spectrum. There’s no centre here. There’s a left of centre position and a right of centre position. Not the most advantageous place if you’re a Liberal who’s trying to be the middle.

MacSweeney: And he’s blurring the lines between Liberals and NDP now by taking on a few of the NDP narratives.

Geddes: Or is he like, you know, lumping himself in with the NDP again, at least on this one issue? Let’s not overstate the point here. Canadian elections are not won or lost generally on foreign policy. The point here is, we’re a year out, but on the increments, on the edges, this has to be a point where Conservatives are saying, hey, we’ve had a bad run for a long time here and now we’re looking at a way of repositioning the Prime Minister that may be advantageous.

MacSweeney: And then, finally, just the exit strategy for the Prime Minister—the opposition parties are saying, if we hit that six-month mark, we could extend it even further, and then further, and they’re saying it could end up like Afghanistan, and we go 11 years on this mission. Do you see the Iraq mission as it stands right now, similar in that sense of, we could see this go on for years?

Wells: We could, but in really small increments, you know, and at political risk to the Prime Minister every time he re-asks. Let’s assume that the six-month window is the window that he uses if he renews. That’s a quarter of the length of the extensions of the Afghanistan mandate. Those were two-year extensions. And so, four times as often he’s got to go before the House of Commons and re-live this psychodrama. I think that reflects Harper’s low level of comfort with what Barack Obama and this cobbled-together coalition are doing. I don’t think Stephen Harper is entirely comfortable with what he’s getting into. And so I think he’s built his own caution into this process.

MacSweeney: Do you think it will be a multi-year mission?

Geddes: You know Cormac, I’d be lying if I pretended I have any kind of insight into the how long some of this is going to. I will say this, though, I agree with people who say that the Sunni-Shia struggle in the Middle East is very fundamental, deep-rooted, and somehow it’s going to keep playing out for a long time to come. So, to the degree that Western powers have to introduce themselves into that struggle, I guess we’re always going to be at risk of … we’re a NATO country. We’re always going to be at risk of being pulled into it.

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