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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Exploring the Myths of International Relations: Three Deadly Disconnects?

Summer in Canada is a wonderful time to reflect.

In that spirit, I was intrigued by an article, entitled “Seven Myths About International Relations”, which appeared recently on the splash page of the Canadian International Council’s (CIC) web site. It is part of a new series being published under the theme Diplomacy and Duplicity: The Myths, Fictions and Outright Lies of International Politics.

I commend the CIC on this latest initiative. Over a few short years of existence, this organization has produced an impressive record of achievement. It has carried forward the work of its predecessor, the venerable, but perpetually vulnerable Canadian Institute of International Affairs, but has innovated, diversified, and reached out to new members and partners. Two years ago the CIC launched its comprehensive Open Canada report on possible new foreign policy directions, and in the interim have presented a steady stream of high quality commentary and analysis authored by the likes of Roland Paris, Jennifer Welsh, James Der Derian and many others. The Council doesn’t hesitate to address sensitive issues, such as what went wrong in Afghanistan, and it keeps the fresh content flowing.


It occurs to me that in this era of anti-government government, and with the continued downsizing of the state, Canada’s comparative advantage in thinking about the implications of a changing world may well be moving out of official Ottawa. With budgets at DFAIT, CIDA, IDRC and other international policy institutions under significant downward pressure, it is both refreshing and a great relief to see a civil society actor stepping up to the plate and helping to fill the civic gap created by a muzzled, cowed and receding public sector.

This country’s vibrant community of NGOs, universities, and think tanks could now be in a position to drive the international policy discussion and debate.

I certainly hope so.

But a closer consideration of just how those structural changes might play out is for another day…  Back now to the CIC’s list.

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Connecting the Dots: The Search for Meaning in Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, and Syria


What a stark reminder of how short the road is between heresy and received wisdom.

Even in the mainstream press, today the majority view is that the intervention in Iraq was a barely veiled disaster.

In excess of 100,000 civilian casualties, 4486 American soldiers dead, 32, 226 wounded, and over a trillion dollars spent. The statistics are mind numbing.

And all for what?

With the exception of a recent spate of stories concerning the US rethinking its distinctly white elephantine, imperial embassy in Bagdhad’s not-s0-green zone, memories of the painful episode in Iraq are receding fast. Although images of Shock and Awe, Abu GhraibGuantanamo Bay, and Fallujah occasionally return, spectre-like,  to haunt the popular conscience, it is clear that less than a decade after the invasion began, most people prefer forgetting to remembrance.

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Heteropolis Rising: World Order in the 21st Century

In the previous post,  I argued that the short-lived era of unipolar American hegemony has given way to  a new international dispensation best characterized as heteropolar rather than multipolar. This metamorphosis may be attributed mainly to a series of colossal strategic misjudgements and the profusion of diverse sources of power and influence globally. The implications for security and diplomacy are profound.

To be sure, and as was the case with the multipolar world dominated by the European Empires from the 15th to 19th centuries, there are once again many poles. But this time the differences between them far outweigh the similarities. These players share little in common.  Unlike in previous eras, the heterogeneous nature of today’s competing actors renders comparison difficult and measurement even more so.

That said, and although this is very much a new order in the making, we can begin to trace the contours and discern the content of heteropolarity, a condition which I believe will increasingly define international relations. New poles are forming, and old poles are evolving. In terms of identifying the major heteropoles in the early years of the 21st century, the following thoughts come immediately to mind.

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Coming Home: Reality Check

It is a pleasure to return to the exquisitely sweet softness of central Canada in mid-summer.

While the month away in New Zealand and Australia for a series of speaking engagements, conferences and meetings with government, university and NGO representatives on matters of science, technology, diplomacy and international policy, was delightful, it’s always nice to be home.

Except, except…

Time spent abroad always sharpens the comparative perspective. Returning from trips abroad over the past decade or so, I have noticed – with an increasing sense of alarm – that in comparison to most of Europe and Australasia, this country is looking kind of tired, worn down, wrung out and generally uncared for.

For some reason, on this occasion I experienced that sensation of falling behind with particular intensity. So with this post I have decided to put the analysis of international relations on hold and share some thoughts instead on what is becoming of Canada, my home and native land.

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Defence Policy, International Security and the Military: Time to Talk

South of the border, there have in recent years been a growing number of voices expressing serious concern over the militarization of American life.

I certainly share that sentiment.

Is an F-16 fly over and trooping the colours  really appropriate for the opening of the Super Bowl?

The USA is apparently becoming the Praetorian pole in an increasingly  heterpolar world order. Still, I think that a debate of this nature is culturally healthy, and have always admired the fact that some of the most trenchant, even withering criticism of U.S. policy and actions comes from domestic sources, including not least that country’s many military academies and war colleges.

Even in the mainstream media, a decade’s worth of assumptions used to justify deploying the military to pursue the epically misguided global war on terror are finally being questioned.

One could only wish that a similar degree of the scrutiny accorded defence issues in the USA  might one day be evident in the discourse on international policyin Canada.

Apart from a few faint echoes in the academy and a handful of specialized publications, that discussion here  is practically non-existent. I find that most unfortunate.

Canadians need to start talking about the kind of military that they require in the face of all identifiable threats and challenges. They must then somehow try and square the outcome of that conversation against a thoughtful consideration of whether or not the defence capability that they need matches the one that they have got.

I have my doubts.

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Five Potential Pitfalls of Western Military Intervention in Libya

In a posting penned a couple of weeks ago, I expressed serious reservations  over the growing prospect of a Western military intervention in Libya. A political and diplomatic resolution would have been far preferable.  It remains a mystery in Western capitals how the unenthusiastic consideration of a no-fly-zone somehow morphed, with minimal public or political debate, into to an ambitious and ever-widening program of ground attacks.  Now, suddenly, the dogs of war have been let slip, and the actions of yet another  “coalition” are in full swing.

The Chinese, Russians and Germans, among others, have already stated their misgivings, and both Brazil and India abstained from the sweeping UN resolution which authorized the air campaign. While conflict outcomes  and their implications are inherently difficult to assess or predict, there are a number of factors in place which suggest that this episode may not end well.

Consider the following:

  • This cannot, in the first instance, be considered a humanitarian intervention as set out under the Responsibility to Protect doctrine. The explicit goal here is regime change, which means that Western countries have essentially chosen sides in a regional and tribally-based civil war – a highly fraught course, as  experience in Afghanistan and Iraq makes clear;
  • Passage of Resolution 1973 notwithstanding, the UN Security Council is not broadly representative of world power or opinion; its authority arguably outweighs its legitimacy – significantly, no Arab countries have yet joined in the bombing, the  African Union is not supporting the intervention, and the Arab League, while initially on side,  has since voiced concerns. The debilitating optics, and catastrophic consequences of Western warplanes again attacking an Islamic country and killing Muslims will almost certainly erode whatever support remains;
  • The citizenry in participating Western countries were not asked if they supported a more robust form of intervention that had been initially mooted. Support for the present course is likely thin, and will become more so if the duration of the violence is protracted and non-combatant casualties mount;
  • Diplomatic alternatives to the use of armed force were not exhausted earlier in the process, and there is no obvious post-war plan;  today, there appears little room for any kind of negotiated settlement or face saving way out. The lack of a dignified exit strategy could blow back, and encourage Qaddafi hang on;
  • Qaddafi ‘s regime, however unpalatable, is not obviously more authoritarian or less representative than those in Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Oman or Yemen, all of which still enjoy Western backing. Although no one will defend his appalling performance on human rights or corruption, the Colonel`s record of investing more than most in schools, hospitals, housing and infrastructure, together with coalition duplicity, suggests a degree of policy incoherence which can only become more obvious over time.

And then, of course, there are the notorious what ifs… What if the US decides that leading three wars simultaneously is too much, tries to hand off to NATO, and some members, including key players such as Turkey and Germany, balk? What if the campaign goes on and on, and nothing changes?  What if Egypt intervenes to break the stalemate or to protect the remaining rebel strongholds of Benghazi and Tobruk, effectively partitioning the country?

These are early days. If the intervention does not drag on, produces limited collateral damage, averts a slaughter,  and results in the formation of a popular, unified new government then it may yet prove justified. Taken in combination, however, the observations set out above are troubling, and underscore once again the inescapable problems associated with a reliance upon military force as the international policy instrument of choice.

Arms and the Man: What’s Next for Libya?

Libya is engaged in a civil war. New protests have broken out in Oman, Bahrain and Yemen. The uprising in Tunisia, the pioneer state of the so-called “Arab Spring,” is entering a second phase. As usual, the amateurish Obama administration has no idea what to do about any of this.

…America has established that its national policy in Libya is regime change. The question now is whether our inexperienced president will take concerted steps to back up that policy.

Gadhafi’s son, Saif al-Islam, boasted that the regime in Tripoli is not fazed by the prospect of U.S. intervention. “We are ready, we are not afraid,” he said Tuesday. “We live here, we die here.” Maybe that can be arranged.”

Editorial, Washington Times, 01 March 2011

Slowly but surely, the sound of sabres rattling is growing louder. Amidst a looming humanitarian crisis and incipient civil war, and denials notwithstanding, there are tell-tale signs of the ground being prepared. In the US and UK there is talk of establishing a no-fly zone, of sending in special forces, of arming and training the rebels…

As Western military assets are deployed to the Eastern Mediterranean and politicians are speaking increasingly of the possibility of some sort of  intervention, my sense of dread intensifies.

Where is the diplomatic offensive? Yes, the foreign holdings of the Qaddafi  family have been frozen, an arms embargo applied, and legal proceedings are being investigated by the International Criminal Court.  But this does not constitute anything like the full court diplomatic press purported to be underway. In fact, it reveals diplomacy’s displacement. Why is no one other than Hugo Chavez calling for immediate negotiations, offering mediation and good offices, dispatching special envoys, demanding that the UN Security Council act to separate the combatants before the onset of full blown hostilities…?

Have we not seen this movie – the one with the tragic ending – before?

Do governments ever learn?

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Egypt After Mubarak: Talking About A Revolution?

The departure of President Hosni Mubarak from Cairo on 11 February, bound apparently for his villa at Sharm al-Sheikh on the Red Sea, unleashed a torrent of breathless media commentary about the “Egyptian Revolution”. It may be that change of a revolutionary magnitude is in store for Egypt, but to date the events in that country resemble something more akin to a popular uprising followed by a palace coup. The ruling regime and state apparatus remain largely intact.

The absence of a clearly defined  leadership cadre on the part of the rebels makes the assessment of about what has been achieved rather difficult. It is, however, possible to evaluate the current state of play against an inventory of demands issued by the “January 25″ movement  and translated in a recent ZNet article authored by Juan Cole. A preliminary check list, based upon  key demands and responses, follows:

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Cairo Burning: Implications for the Defence vs. Diplomacy Debate

The following commentary, based in part on my “Ferment in North Africa” entry, was posted by the University of Southern California’s Public Diplomacy Blog 02 February:

This is one of those rare, defining moments in world history. In Egypt – as well as Tunisia, Sudan, Yemen and elsewhere – change is unfolding at almost blinding speed. The reactions of the USA, EU, and UN  so far have succeeded mainly in positioning the international community well behind the curve, scrambling to catch up. Developments on the ground continue to outpace responses by a wide margin.

Between concerns over secure access to oil,  radical Islamic politics, and the prospects for Middle East peace, Western interests are heavily engaged in the region. What, then, are the the broad strategic considerations which policy planners and decision-makers could usefully take into account?

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WikiLeaks, Diplomacy and the Public Interest

Looking back over the key developments affecting international relations during 2010, the continuing release of over 250,000 US-origin diplomatic communications stands out as especially significant.

The story broke just over a month a month ago, and has been with us every day since. This must already amount to something of an endurance record  given the relentless pressures  of the 24/7 news cycle, and there is much, much more to come.

The WikiLeaks saga raises a host of complex, multifaceted issues. What to make of it all?

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