Sunday, November 15, 2015

Let's Have a War

That, at any rate, seems to be the theme of the day. Let's stop taking in dangerous refugees! Let's not withdraw from the Syrian Civil War! Stephen Harper was right all along! You can get your fill of this from any mainstream media source that you like.

Here's my advice, which I now will be ignored (not to mention not heard anyways): don't do anything. Not yet. Take time to think this through. Yeah right. Going off our gut is better, yes?

In the meantime, the key questions that should be at the core of all public discussion of this question in Canada haven't changed, even though virtually nobody was publicly posing them before and virtually nobody is now: What is the war aim? And how can we achieve it?

"We're going to punish ISIS" is senseless.  The application of military violence solely to enact retribution, without any meaningful military or political objectives, is murder, plain and simple.

"We need to destroy ISIS" is equally senseless. ISIS is a symptom, not a disease. It exists because the Syrian dictatorship is very nearly a failed state -- thanks in part to Western opposition -- and because the Iraqi government is clearly a failed state -- thanks to the failure of Western intervention to set up a viable successor state after 2003.  Why, and who is to blame for these decisions, are sunk costs now. The point is, you can assassinate the ISIS leadership again and again. It won't magically make this region into two functioning states again.

This matters because contrary to what people seem to think, there is no "war on ISIS" that we will be joining. There is a civil war that currently encompasses parts of both Iraq and Syria. Iran and Russia are intervening in that civil war to fight ISIS while propping up the Syrian government. We are -- supposedly anyways -- intervening in that civil war to fight ISIS while toppling the Syrian government. Hezbollah has sent troops to fight ISIS, but we are enemies with Hezbollah. The Kurds are fighting ISIS too, and we say they are our closest allies in this fight, but on the other hand, the Kurds are also committed to destabilizing the governments of Iraq (our ally) and Turkey (another ally).

So we're not "going to war against ISIS." We're intervening in a multi-sided civil war. This will shape how we fight the war. It will also shape what sort of peace we can create afterwards. If we live in denial of the complexity of the situation, then there is only one possible end result: more civil war.

Part and parcel of this is why we are trying to stop ISIS. Is it because they butcher civilians? Because people who support ISIS commit terrorist acts in the West? Because we are committed to maintaining the established international borders in the Middle East? Because we hope to build new and effective nation-state governments in Iraq and Syria?

How you answer those questions is important because it determines what your actual objectives are and what your strategies need to be. The alternative, which is what we've been doggedly backing ourselves into for over a year now, is one more drifting, aimless nation-building exercise just like the ones that have patently failed in Afghanistan and Iraq before. And it will fail, just like the others.

Canada's new defence minister will be more than a hindrance than a help in this. The great problem with Western militaries -- Tom Ricks has been banging the drum about this south of the border for years -- is that they have become excellent operationally and tactically but their strategic thinking is non-existent, actively discouraged even. Much the same is true on the civilian side of government. Putting someone with field experience and good tactical judgement in charge of DND isn't going to help that. Maybe there were no other choices that would have been better. I'll accept that. Point is, it won't help that he's a decorated war hero.

Which is okay, because truth be told, Canada isn't intervening in Iraq and Syria to defeat ISIS anyways. We're doing it to earn brownie points. We're a vassal state. We answer our feudal obligations to Washington, except when they're so abysmally out of step that we have to quietly decline. We pay those obligations, and in return, we expect some measure of economic and political incentives. That's the purpose of Canadian defence policy, really. We are basically America's small mercenary adjunct.

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