Learning from experience? The case against Canadian military engagement in Iraq/Syria

The government has announced that it will table a motion in Parliament to extend and expand the bombing, training and special operations mission in Iraq. Syria may now also be included.

Joining this mission was unnecessary; continuing and expanding it will compound the costs.

Canada need not participate in this campaign. Following are five reasons why the application of armed force is ill-advised:

It doesn’t work. Look no further than the disastrous results of recent Western military interventions. Afghanistan, where support for the Mujahidin gave way to the creation of al-Qaeda, is fractured and failing. Libya, where conditions of life once topped the African continent on the UNDP’s Human Development Index, is imploding. In Iraq, the current problem with ISIL is a direct result of the security, governance and justice vacuum engendered by the ruinous US-led invasion and occupation 2003-11.

Blowback, big time.

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A better way forward? High hopes for the Independent Commission on Multilateralism

Last August I attended a conference in entitled 1814, 1914, 2014: Lessons from the Past, Visions for the Future, organized jointly by the International Peace Institute (IPI) and the Salzburg Global Seminar. Over the course of that event, and despite whatever else may have been learned about the nature and impact of industrial-scale violence, it became clear that there is a fundamental problem. The multilateral institutions crafted in the middle of the 20th century are underperforming and largely unfit for purpose in the 21st. Absent some sort of significant transformation, peace and prosperity will therefore remain elusive. Or worse.

Thus arose the idea of undertaking a comprehensive review of the institutions which, writ large, comprise the “international system” with a view to formulating proposals for change. The UN and its specialized agencies will figure centrally, but the role of regional bodies such as ASEAN the OAS, SCO and AU, as well as non-traditional actors, including NGOs, philanthropic foundations, and multinational business will also be evaluated.

Christened the Independent Commission of Multilateralism, or ICM, this initiative is supported by the governments of Norway, the United Arab Emirates, and – somewhat surprisingly – Canada. It was launched in September by its Chair, former Australian PM Kevin Rudd, and will be co-chaired by the Foreign Ministers of Canada and Norway, as well as the former President and Prime Minister of Timor-Leste, José Ramos-Horta. India’s former Ambassador to the UN, Hardeep Singh Puri, will serve as Secretary General.

However important, political and bureaucratic machinations of this sort rarely fire the public imagination; the ICM has to date flown largely below the radar. An initial round of international consultations with experts and stakeholders will be held this weekend in New York. Discussions will focus on an examination of new global challenges, the evolution of organized violence, the current multilateral architecture, and recommendations for reform. A final report will be released in 2016.

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For Canada’s new Foreign Minister? A three point plan

As the dust settles in the wake of John Baird’s abrupt departure from the Foreign Affairs portfolio, little has been ventured about his successor, former Defence Minister Rob Nicholson. Given the new minister’s long record in government, we might reliably anticipate a steady, if somewhat slow hand on the tiller at Fort Pearson, and the quiet, if unquestioning execution of the PM’s ideologically-driven agenda.

My former colleague Paul Heinbecker recently offered Mr. Nicholson some useful advice on repairing the damage associated with Mr. Baird’s controversial legacy. These proposals are related mainly to specific foreign policy issues, and I have no particular qualms with the priorities set forth.

That said, the challenges associated with the restoration of this country’s place in the world are profound and far-reaching. Addressing them will require remedial action affecting all elements of the diplomatic ecosystem – the foreign ministry, foreign service, and diplomatic practice – as well as grand strategy and the Canadian brand.

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Out of Afghanistan? Still counting the costs

Thirteen years after the campaign began, NATO’s International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) formally ended combat operations in Afghanistan on 28 December. A residual foreign military presence of about 18,000 troops, the Resolute Support Mission, will stay on for counter-terrorism purposes and provide training and logistical assistance to Afghan police and security forces.

With rising Afghan civilian and military casualties, and Taliban gains amidst generally deteriorating conditions, there was little to celebrate at the secret handover ceremony. That event received only passing media attention – surprising given the exceptional human and financial costs associated with this intervention.

As coalition members rush for the exits, there have been many attempts to explain what went wrong, which by my reckoning includes just about everything. That said, few in positions of authority are admitting failure. Clearly, among responsible senior officials, more than a few of whom managed to eke a promotion or two out of the war, there is no appetite for a searching retrospective.

While awaiting the attribution of some form of culpability for the wilful blindness which plagued the ISAF mission, it may be useful to look ahead with a view to identifying some of the main winners and losers.

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US – Cuba rapprochement: The implications behind the headlines

Reporting on the historic resumption of diplomatic ties between the USA and Cuba has tended to focus on the details of the agreement and the likely impact on domestic politics and bilateral relations. Beyond the spectacle of longstanding political and ideological adversaries coming to terms after a hiatus of over fifty years, there are a number of additional implications which deserve examination.

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Canada and the world today: Cold comfort, little joy

As Christmas approaches and 2014 winds down, a survey of major political and economic developments suggests that the prospects for a more peaceful and prosperous world are receding.

Thanks to the emergence of the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq, the much-maligned Global War on Terror (GWOT), which only a year ago seemed to be waning, has received an enormous boost. The name may have changed, but terrorism and radical Islam remain at the top of the threat list for most Western governments. While large scale invasions and occupations have – for now – fallen into well-deserved disrepute, that space has been filled by a combination of drone and air strikes, special operations, cyber attacks and mass surveillance.

Torture and abduction – a.k.a. enhanced interrogation and extraordinary rendition – have been curbed, but not forgotten. Guantanamo Bay still festers like an open sore, a poster for jihadi recruiters everywhere. Occasional episodes of Islamist-inspired domestic violence, however vaguely motivated, receive saturation coverage in the Western media and ensure that the politics of fear and social control remain the order of the day.

Such circumstances have eroded the foundations of freedom and democracy and permitted the imposition of constraints on civil liberties, constitutional rights and the rule of law.

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A time of remembrance… and of forgetting

For those with an interest in foreign policy, military history, and geopolitics, this month has been rich.

Canadians marked a pair of significant commemorations – November 9th, the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, and November 11th, Remembrance (or Armistice) Day, which in 2014 fell during 100th anniversary of the outbreak of World War One.

Much has been made of these events. The festivities in Berlin punctuated a quarter century of European transformation. A few days later at the National War Memorial in Ottawa, an unusually large crowd gathered to honour all those who have served in the Canadian military, and in particular those whose names alone ‘liveth for evermore”.

Late October’s tragic killings in Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu and Ottawa heightened Canadians’ shared sense of both empathy and loss.

What larger implications might be drawn?

The Great War reminds us of what can happen when citizens and politicians “sleepwalk” over the precipice, defer critical decision-making to generals and admirals, or otherwise invite the sort of conflagration which ensues when obsolete doctrines fail and industrial processes are harnessed in service of mass violence. Less appreciated, but at least as debilitating as was the 1918-20 Spanish Flu pandemic, which killed many times the number of the war’s 8.5 million dead.

The problem of inattention to the management of non-traditional security threats, from climate change to resource scarcity, remains acute.

Berlin’s re-emergence as the dynamic capital of Europe’s most powerful country is in some respects even more consequential, signifying the end of the Cold War, German re-unification, and the eastward expansion of NATO and the EU. If the “end of history” has not quite delivered a knock-out punch in favour of markets and neoliberalism, Berlin’s ascent nonetheless stands as a powerful symbol of peace and prosperity.

Despite its annexation of Crimea and meddling in Ukraine, today Russia threatens few beyond its “near abroad”. And while the financial crisis and colossal strategic miscalculation in Iraq resulted in the premature eclipse of the USA’s unipolar moment, broader Western prospects remain reasonably bright, even in the face of a rising Asia-Pacific. At minimum, the Doomsday Clock, though still ticking, no longer hangs over a world mere moments away from the possibility of nuclear Armageddon.

The “international system”, in other words, though in flux and not functioning especially well, faces few fundamental challenges to its survival. The religious extremism and political violence used with such effect by the Islamic State, however horrifying, do not compare to the hazards of world war.

Still, this November, on the occasion of two particularly poignant anniversaries, Canadians have ample reason to reflect. The question might be put: from these many acts of remembrance, what, if anything, has been learned?

Perhaps even more to the point, what elements previously associated with this country’s global engagement might have been lost or forgotten?

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Countering domestic political violence and the Islamic State: Canada needs a strategy

In the wake of last week’s disturbing events in Saint-Jean-sur-Richileau and Ottawa, Canadian policy and decision-makers are turning their attention to remedial action. So far, rather than a rigorous re-assessment and course correction, indications are that we are headed for more of the same, but possibly worse.

By way of alternatives, what would constitute an effective response to the combined threats posed by ISIS abroad and political violence at home?  Changes will be required in both domestic and international policy, but the best defence will have little to do with the application of armed force or the imposition of more stringent security measures.

A coherent strategy could give expression to five recommendations:

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Pin stripes and pearls? Ten (uneasy) steps to increased diplomatic capacity


In my last posting, I made the case for radical diplomatic reform as an alternative to the use of armed force in international relations.

How would that work?

A bit of background. Last month I attended an international conference in Salzburg which marked the centenary of World War One. It was entitled Architects or Sleepwalkers: 1814, 1914, 2014 – Lessons from the Past, Visions for the Future.

Participants were searching for ways to avoid the disastrous mistakes of the past century, during which two world wars and a Cold War killed tens of millions. I argued that although there are no military solutions to the most vexing challenges at present facing the planet, a cosmetic makeover of the diplomatic status quo will not suffice. At minimum, ten transformative steps will be required:

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A better way forward in a troubled world? Why radical diplomatic reform is imperative

It is September, the seasons are changing, and Canadians have every reason to feel uneasy.

The erstwhile global village is today looking more and more like a patchwork of gated communities surrounded by a roiling wasteland of violent and terrifying shantytowns.

Over the course of the summer – and  undoubtedly much to the delight of Abu Bakr al Baghdadi – the media has delivered saturation coverage of the Islamic State on the rampage, Iraq fissuring, carnage in Gaza, civil war in Libya, Russian adventurism in the Ukraine, state failure in Afghanistan, rising tensions in the East and South China Seas…

The torrent of troubles has been unrelenting.

Twenty-five years after the end of the Cold War, and just when the ill-starred Global War on Terror seemed finally to be winding down, our political and opinion leaders seem convinced that Western civilization is once again being menaced, this time by new iterations of both threats: a revived, and particularly strident version of Russian revanchism, and a media-savvy, unusually treacherous form of Islamist terrorism operating out of a reconstructed Caliphate.

Be afraid, be very afraid…

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Blowback, Libya: More unintended consequences, less progress on the larger issues

When it comes to Western attempts at armed intervention, the record of recent years – in Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya – speaks convincingly for itself.

Unprecedented gains by the Islamic State (IS) in Iraq have drawn the U.S. military back into the fray and have been accompanied by horrendous civilian carnage. The country is politically fractured and the state failing.

A controversial election in Afghanistan, with a highly contested outcome, has been followed by a putative deal on cobbling together a “unity” government. Meanwhile, another instance of “green on blue” insider killings has underscored the parlous prospects facing this “graveyard of empires” following NATO’s withdrawal.

Enough? Not quite. Although not covered nearly as prominently as developments in Iraq or Afghanistan, recent weeks have brought dissolution, civil war and generalized regression in Libya.

* * * * * * * * * *

What to make of these events? Above all, it appears that costly Western experiments with the attempted imposition of military solutions in the face of complex, multi-dimensional civil conflicts have served mainly to make matters worse.

The latest example of this form of “blowback” is Libya, which is by all accounts in uncharted waters and  descending into chaos. For the Libyan people, who until recently enjoyed Africa’s highest standing on the UN’s Human Development Index, this outcome represents an unmitigated disaster, with no end in sight.

Could such a catastrophe have been avoided?

Almost certainly.

Have decision-makers and opinion-leaders learned from their mistakes? Not likely. The burden of evidence from the misadventures in Afghanistan and Iraq was already clear at the time of the Libyan intervention, yet those lessons were ignored. Little wonder that the victory celebrations rung hollow.

If this all seems too discouraging, brace yourself.

The larger picture is even more troubling.

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One Hundred Years On, Reflections on the Great War: Memory, Meaning and a World in the Making – Part II

On the surface, much has changed since the beginning of “the war that ended peace”.

Today, various social media, the most contemporary expression of the continuing revolution in information and communications technologies, have become a popular pre-occupation. Twitter-expedited rebellions and a string of sensational WikiLeaks and state surveillance revelations have changed the game and served as a kind of ‘Napster moment” for governments everywhere. In the digital age, control and secrecy, like privacy and confidentiality will never be the same again.

The industrial revolution of the mid to late 19th century, on the other hand, ensured that early in the 20th century, mechanized, assembly-line killing could be undertaken on an epic scale. For the individual soldiers whose names, according to the monuments, “ liveth for evermore,” or for the hundreds of thousands whose identity is “known only unto God,” this meant going up and over, with a high likelihood of being shot, or gassed, blown to bits, or vaporized.

Then as now, military and security thinking had not caught up. In 1914, policy makers embraced the conventions of the pre-industrial past, certain that deploying large formations to take and hold additional physical territory would favourably tip the balance of power. Similarly, those responsible for framing today’s strategic calculus are busy trying to engineer a transition from the Global War on Terror to a new Cold War. Whether that involves estimating the order of battle and the throw-weights of ballistic missiles, or the complexity of counterinsurgency and how best to defend against suicide bombers and improvised explosive devices, war planners have little difficulty finding threats to arm against.

Whether conventional or asymmetrical, from Ukraine to Iraq and beyond, conflict is with us still.

So, too, is the inviolability of received wisdom.

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One Hundred Years On, Reflections on the Great War: Memory, Meaning and a World in the Making – Part I

In this great future, you can’t forget your past.

Bob Marley

Today marks the 100th anniversary of the assassination in Sarajevo of the heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, by Serbian nationalist Gavrilo Princip. The Archduke’s  death set off a chain of events which in the space of a few months plunged much of Europe into World War I.

In the end, empires collapsed, while ethno-nationalism flourished.

I have long been fascinated by that conflagration, once believed to be the war to end all wars. My grandfather enlisted at seventeen and spent four years in trenches of the Western Front. For the third time since the early 1970s, I recently revisited many of the principal battlefields in France and Belgium.

There are now many interpretive centres and museums, brimming with photos, artifacts and maps that assist the visitor in coming to terms with the magnitude of the tragedy. Were it not for all of the memorials, and all of the dead, the casual passer-by would not guess what happened there. The dimensions of the violence were almost unimaginable. Two hundred thousand French dead at Verdun. Fifty-eight  thousand British casualties on July 1st, 1916, the first day of battle on the Somme and the worst day ever in the history of the British army. Of the 1.5 million total casualties in that four-month campaign, four hundred and twenty thousand British soldiers were killed, wounded or missing for the sake of gaining just two miles – a loss of two men per centimeter.

The former front lines are eerily peaceful and mainly pastoral now. Years of tillage have restored the once mangled landscape.  The orderly patterns of established agriculture have a calming effect. Ragged shell holes and huge mine craters have mostly been smoothed away, like so much else of what we would rather forget, and their shapes now melt seamlessly into the flowing rural contours. The trees, reduced by artillery to pulp and matchsticks, have re-grown. The atmosphere is pacific and prosperous, very much the new Europe.

These bucolic images obscure the big questions that haunt us still. Why did the political leadership choose war over peace, fighting over talking?

After the stalemate on the battlefield became clear, why did both sides opt to continue the slaughter for another three and a half years?

When it was all over and a peace deal struck finally at Versailles, the waste of a generation of young men had resolved little, and, over the longer term, achieved less.

Could a serious effort at pre-war diplomacy have resolved outstanding differences and accommodated the rise of new powers by offering plausible alternatives to violence?

Almost certainly. Yet from all of this too little has been learned.

If we are to more successfully broach the 21st century’s complex suite of threats and challenges, there is very much to be done.

More on all of this in the next post.

Iraq, Blowback and Lessons Unlearned: Reaping the Whirlwind

Under relentless pressure from the jihadist movement Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), the political collapse and territorial disintegration of Iraq in recent weeks has been striking. If not reversed, the emergence of a radical Islamist enclave is likely to cause serious security problems for decades, both in the Middle East and beyond.

That has been the focus of most reporting to date, but the big picture implications are even more profound.

To be sure, the roots of the present crisis are complex and tangled. They can be traced back at least to the unravelling of the Ottoman Empire following World War One, and the subsequent division of the territorial spoils by Britain and France according to the terms of the Sykes-Picot Agreement.

That said, and notwithstanding Tony Blair’s apparent amnesia, much of the current disaster appears directly attributable to the ill-fated decision on the part of the USA and its coalition allies to intervene militarily in Iraq 2003 – 11. As it happened, much of the “shock and awe” was reserved for the invaders. That colossal strategic error cost some $1.7 trillion, resulted in the deaths of over 150,000 Iraqis and 4800 coalition soldiers, and, together with the Great Recession, spelled the end of unipolarity – American international dominance.

While those costs are extraordinary, the longer term damage may prove even greater. The ISIS gains in Syria and Iraq may be only the beginning, and could give rise to further developments inimical to peace, progress and prosperity, both in the region and further afield. The obvious hazards are related to Islamic extremism, sectarian strife, civil war, ethnic partition – and oil.

Of even greater concern, however, is the continued militarization of international policy.

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