The House confronts ISIL and the quandary of saving Iraq

Today’s debate was perhaps not quite a shining example of public dialogue. But it was a debate.

Adrian Wyld/CP

Adrian Wyld/CP

John Baird began with an appeal to the moment and the setting.

“There are significant questions, not just of process, but of principle, at stake here in the House today,” the Foreign Affairs minister explained. “Let us focus on the issues at hand with the seriousness that Canadians rightly expect.”

Well, it is perhaps never too late to start doing that. Or never a bad time to be reminded that the work that is conducted here is serious, even when conducted otherwise.

“It is fair to say that all sides of the House have, at times, been known to produce more heat than light,” said this famous producer of rhetorical fire, “but this issue is much bigger than that. The House is bigger than that. Canada is bigger than that.”

However big the matter, the place, the country or the concerns, this remained a debate. And Baird’s contribution seemed an attempt to back the Liberals and New Democrats into the nearest corner.

He offered first to clarify specifics: asking himself and answering questions about the length of the mission, the number of planes involved and the number of soldiers to be called on. He reviewed the horrors of the people we would bomb. He announced a commitment of $10 million to deal with the scourge of sexual violence—addressing a specific concern raised by the New Democrats. He listed the countries he would have us join in fighting this fight. He contrasted the apparently admirable ideological objections of Green Party Leader Elizabeth May with “others” who “seem to be grasping for any reason . . . not to support Canada’s mission.” He chided the Liberal party directly.

“Just think for a moment what could happen if we do not act. When I sing, ‘We stand on guard for thee,’ and maybe I do not sing it very well, but I mean it well enough. I mean it as a citizen, and I mean it as a member of Parliament who sees this as the highest responsibility we have to our constituents,” Baird explained. “If we do not deal with ISIL and its ilk, they will deal with us. Anyone who accepts the premise that ISIL is a threat to our security, while leaving the fight against ISIL to others, is abrogating their role of responsibility and their duty of care.”

He aimed to lead his colleagues to a single conclusion: to support the government’s resolution.

“Let us debate what needs to be done, but let us be Parliament at its best,” the minister said. “Let us be Canada at its best.”

A few hours later, Defence Minister Rob Nicholson would attempt to clarify the precise expectation for Parliament here.

“Canadians expect their Parliament to take action in the face of an international crisis,” he said.

Of course, Parliament at its best is not merely a place of decision, but of deliberation. It is on that score that it should be measured. Those who vote in favour of the government’s motion might be judged on the relative success of what we do in Iraq (and maybe Syria). Those who vote against might be judged on same. But Parliament might only be judged on how we came to take that action.

On that count, we might have a debate—about how well we proceeded to the brink of bombing targets in another country, up to and including Paul Calandra, a dick joke, a prime ministerial revelation in New York and the actual quality of the arguments presented so far.

The leader of Her Majesty’s Opposition would follow Baird, and NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair would proceed with a lengthy review of his concerns and complaints. The Foreign Affairs minister, he said, had recently overstated the UN’s endorsement of action in Iraq. The government, the NDP leader noted, had left itself room to drop bombs on Syria if invited to do so by the country’s much-reviled leader. Three allies—Italy, Germany and Norway—were not participating in the American-led bombing campaign, he reported.

Mulcair read aloud at length from a pair of op-eds, the upshot of which was a concern that dropping bombs on Iraq might not be much of a solution. He recalled former NDP leader Jack Layton’s questions about the mission in Afghanistan and suggested that the same questions apply now. He noted that the Prime Minister had not bothered to brief him on Iraq, as the Prime Minister had briefed Layton on Libya. The Prime Minister had not been clear, Mulcair argued, on the initial deployment of military advisers, nor was it clear where Canadian Forces would be based. There ensued a very close parsing of what the NDP leader saw as inconsistencies in government statements about the goal of Canada’s involvement.

He settled near the end on perhaps the most relevant point so far as concerns the general notion of dropping explosive projectiles on people and things in a foreign country. “There is overwhelming agreement, here at home and abroad, about the need to confront the horrors perpetrated by ISIS,” Mulcair said. “However, there is no agreement that Western military force is the answer.”

Indeed, the NDP leader noted reports and arguments to the effect that air campaigns might only serve the recruiting efforts of our enemies.

(He quoted from the analysis of Robert Fowler, though, presumably, without sharing Fowler’s suggested options of a rather larger war or nothing.)

“The tragedy in Iraq and Syria will not end with another Western-led invasion in that region,” Mulcair said. “It will end by helping the people of Iraq and Syria to build the political institutions and security capabilities they need to oppose these threats themselves.”

On that note, the leader of the Opposition moved an amendment to the motion that suggested, among other things, that this country contribute “military support for the transportation of weapons for a period of up to three months.”

The NDP leader would be followed by Liberal critic Marc Garneau, who would assert that the Prime Minister has failed to make the case for committing this country to combat, and Garneau would be followed by fellow Liberal critic Joyce Murray, who would also raise this question about the wisdom of bombs. “Western combat deployment and civilian deaths could further bind moderate Sunni peoples to their radical brethren and power the jihadi surge,” she said of the situation in Iraq.

This would seem like a point we are getting to rather late in the proceedings: a point we might have been better off debating last week, before the parties had taken their positions, before even a motion was on the floor of the House. But hey, better late than never?

After a pause for question period, it was May, she of Baird’s preferred dissent, who put this issue to the Defence minister.

“Could the minister of Defence give us any evidence whatsoever that Canada’s planned mission would do anything other than fall into the trap ISIS has set for us to get involved in this for its propaganda and ongoing efforts to destabilize any current recruitment?” the Green MP asked.

The minister’s response managed to almost completely ignore the question.

In his speech to the House, Baird had appealed to some hope for unity. “Every step of the way, I have wanted Canada to show a strong and united front in the fight against ISIL. It saddens me that it appears that this will not happen,” he said. Then later, “I urge us to come together in solidarity with those who are being victimized and brutalized, to come together in solidarity with those who are standing up against this terrible barbaric threat.”

Any chance of that is probably gone. And if the government wanted unity, it might’ve given the Opposition fewer opportunities to complain that it hadn’t been consulted (something Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau raised in the House this afternoon, leading to perhaps the first direct exchange between the Liberal and NDP leaders). Even if a split were destined—by viewpoints, by political considerations, by whatever—we might wish that more had been done to avoid it.

Today’s debate was perhaps not quite a shining example of public dialogue at its finest—owing something maybe to a standard format that limits the chances of meaningful back-and-forth. (We might’ve been best off letting the applicable ministers and their opposition counterparts and May have at it for the afternoon, with short opening remarks from each followed by a few hours of trading questions and responses. A committee hearing might’ve been useful, as well.) But it was a debate, blessed in fits and starts by quibbles and differing views on the proper national role. Which is not quite nothing. If the last two weeks, since the Prime Minister told a New York audience that Canada had been asked to do more in Iraq, have not been ideal, we have at least not skipped merrily into war.

So if we have to choose between unity and debate, we should probably hope for the latter. Tomorrow being another day of the latter, there is at least still time to get at what this debate is about. This is what Parliament, at its best, should be able to do.

Postscript: Parliament at its best is a test and, right now, all three major parties are being tested.

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