Conrad Black has a piece in the National Post today in which he suggests that we think of our battle against Islamic State as a "war of extermination." Ezra Levant has gone to Paris to, as one of his associates in the Rebel put it, "slap the French in the face" for their failure to show appropriate "irrational hatred" of the Islamist. And John Gallagher, not nearly as foolish as these civilian militarists, has been welcomed home as a hero for warfighting that was not formally sanctioned by the Canadian state and might have repercussions that are contrary to Canadian interests.
And the weird part is, Justin Trudeau is doing more to place Canada in the middle of this conflict than Harper ever did, even though he is getting absolutely no thanks from right-wing militarists for it. The ground training units are going to accomplish more than a handful of fighter jets can. They don't carry the imperialist baggage of their American counterparts, and if they do their job, we can sleep safely knowing that several rural militias are that much better at destabilizing their state. (Wait, that's a good thing?)
It's worth noting the Black piece because Black styles himself the egregiously-libelled face of the responsible establishment right (as opposed to the crazed monosyllabic hordes). This is what passes for sensible discourse in a national paper in Canada, apparently. Which is why I'm going to keep banging on about this topic, though I have a few others in the pipeline too now. And I'm picking on Black but he's just the face of the bigger militarist movement in this regard. You can get the same dreck from dozens of mainstream papers and thousands of right-wing blogs.
And yet the concept of a "war of extermination" is contrary to our cultural traditions and it is most definitely contrary to Canadian interests.
Interestingly, although I absolutely do not crib my posts from anywhere, ever, I don't think there's a single principle in this post that isn't clearly and incontrovertibly rooted in the Western military tradition. I've never served in the armed forces and I'm not particularly conservative, so I feel a little bit weird having to lecture conservatives on how to be proper militarists, but there it is. I wonder why it falls to a humble blogger to point out something that every well-informed pundit and every retired officer speaking publicly should already be saying.
Even in World War II, we did not go to war to exterminate either Nazism or Japanese imperialism. We had a specific war aim: to compel the unconditional surrender of the axis powers. De-Nazification and the pacification of Japan were civil and political projects that came after surrender. The idea that our war aim should be the total destruction of an enemy political entity is something new and unwelcome in the West. It hearkens back to the days of the crusades, and I don't use that historical reference lightly.
There are moral reasons for not taking up total extermination as a war aim, but there are also practical ones. The existence of Islamic State as a would-be state is a political problem, not a military one. The balance of power which it seeks to overturn is likewise a political rather than military problem. Its control over territory and population in Syria and Iraq is a military problem, not a political one. If we misunderstand the problem, we are likely to apply the wrong strategies to solve them. Which is precisely what is now happening.
Let me unpack what I mean there. The underlying principle of all foreign and defence strategy is security, for our alliances in general but in the final measure for ourselves. To that end, we seek to defeat or, failing that, to contain real and potential threats. This does not require the complete destruction of enemy organizations. Indeed, achieving that level of destruction by merely military means is almost certainly impossible.
How would you measure the destruction of ISIS? You could assassinate every present leader; new ones would step forward. You could starve it of resources; it would shrink and consolidate. You could train death squads to patrol the stateless zone, hunting down ISIS units and taking no prisoners. (Although is that really the level we want to stoop to?) Then there would eventually be no ISIS, but the survivors would flock to new Islamist banners.
There is a very good reason that we saved this sort of thing for the political reforms after World War II. Trying to do social work and counterterrorism simultaneously, with only a fraction of the necessary troops, was a dubious and unsuccessful idea in Afghanistan and Iraq. Trying to do both without any real line units, just bombers and special forces contingents, is idiotic.
A sensible short-term goal, you might think, would be to reduce ISIL to the level where it is unwilling to carry out further terrorist strikes against targets in the West. But even that is impossible to measure. We normally don't adopt that as a war objective either. The resources necessary to carry out at least a small high-profile killing of civilians are negligible. Far-right Americans with gun collections pull this off several times per year, and when they do, the American body public gives a collective shrug of its shoulders and agrees that there's really nothing that can be done about it.
So what do we do? Well, that's what we need to figure out. And we should be doing it now, before committing more troops to the fray. We can afford to take this time because ISIL is not actually an existential threat to the West, despite the militarist orgies in the right-wing press. The sort of act that ISIL undertook in Paris is limited and is the extent of ISIL's capabilities. If ISIL could mount that kind of attack every week in every Western capital, they would already be doing so. They aren't and I suspect that they can't.
But even if they could, it still wouldn't threaten the survival of the West. ISIL could kill a thousand Westerners a week and we would survive. I know this because we've been through wars that killed much more than that without ending Western civilization. That doesn't mean we should sit back and do nothing. It means, though, that we don't need to rush in without thinking this through.
Which brings me back to Gallagher. First, Gallagher was off on a private enterprise but in doing so he endangered Canadian interests. ISIL should not be expected to believe that he went without the sanction, approval, and perhaps even assistance of the Canadian government. That's the truth, but we wouldn't believe it of a pro-ISIL Islamist who came to Canada from Syria, and that could be truth too, for all we would know. Gallagher's actions therefore impacted on Canada, and his death was doubtless seen in the same light.
Second, Gallagher was fighting with the Kurds of the YPG. Turkey's position is that these are terrorist organizations. It bases this position on terrorist actions allegedly committed in Turkey by affiliated Kurdish organizations. Turkey is our ally in NATO. Why do we not stand with Turkey against the Kurdish sovereigntists?
As it happens I am not remotely interested in helping Turkey defeat the Kurds. But it illustrates the problem we face due to the legacy of shortsighted and misguided defence policies. We are arming the enemy of our ally. So much for collective defence. Maybe Turkey isn't really our ally after all. Maybe their presence in NATO is just an obsolete relic of Cold War sabre-rattling. Maybe someone should tell the Turks this?
So how far are we prepared to back the Kurds? The Syrian government wants to defeat ISIL to restore its own integrity. The Kurds want to defeat ISIL in order to claim territory that they have no intention of giving back to the Syrian government. The only postwar Syrian state that the Kurds would really want to participate in, short of a new convention to redraw borders, would be one in which they and presumably other regions were granted status as self-governing enclaves, further weakening the already failed regime in Damascus. (Much the same is already underway in Iraq.) Whose interests does that serve?
If we think that we have a specific vision for post-ISIS order to impose in Syria, then we need to have the means of compelling others in the conflict to accept our vision. This cannot be done with tactical trainers or fighter aircraft. The only way to expect it to work would be to have an armed force on the ground that dwarfed every other coalition in the conflict, and was committed to staying there as long as needed.
And yet I can't help but notice that none of the right-wing militarists are calling for a full-scale occupation of Iraq and Syria.
So we're going to bomb ISIL and train militias. In the process, we may or may not destroy ISIL. We will certainly not eliminate the existence of radical Islamist organizations, some with cells in the West, who sometimes attempt to strike civilian targets. The best-case scenario for us is that we send ISIL's remnants splintering into a dozen new terrorist organizations, at the cost of doing so much damage to Syria that it cannot ever be put back together.
A while back, when ISIL was really getting off the ground, one of its spokesmen tore a piece of paper and announced that the Sykes-Picot Agreement was dead. I doubt one percent of Americans even know what that Agreement was. (Hint: It's the secret treaty by which France and the UK partitioned up the Middle East after World War I.) That was ISIS's goal and it was probably well on its way to achieving it. We might destroy ISIS, but we're going to achieve their strategic objective for them. Good on us.
What do you suppose happens after that?