Professor Michael Bliss, a distinguished Canadian historian, has written a slightly provocative piece in the Globe and Mail about why we, Canada, at least, should get out of the Middle East entirely. I have considerable sympathy for his position, if not for the reasons he cites for taking it. I, personally, don’t care if we ended up doing more harm than good, as long as the harm is not to ourselves, in the form of self-inflicted wounds. But, Michael Bliss needs, I think, to be more careful when tossing around words like “failed” and “shameful,” unless he confines them to speaking about the politicians, many of the bureaucrats and most of the “chattering classes.” Most military people, some bureaucrats and a few commentators got it mostly right, on the ground and in the air, but to be fair, Professor Bliss is talking about foreign policy.
Another point where I disagree with Professor Bliss is when he says “to the great credit of the Jean Chrétien government – and no credit at all to the Conservative opposition at the time – Canada avoided playing a military role in a terrible catastrophe, the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq.” It, staying out of Iraq, was, indeed, good, smart politics, but to imply that it was a policy that was grounded in anything but a cold, cruel calculation of Canadian anti-Americanism is quite wrong in my opinion. Prime Minister Chrétien cared only for his own re-election prospects; he had no interest in Canada’s vital interests, much less those of the bigger, broader, US led West. Prime Minister Harper may not have thought things through any more in 2003 than Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has in 2016, but, at least, his heart and mind were on what he assumed were Canada’s interests, unlike the Liberal prime minister who came before and after him.
But, professor Bliss is right on track when he says: “Like its Western allies, especially the United States, Canada is groping around in impossibly confused situations in the Middle East, and it will be many years before we have any clear knowledge of the consequences of our actions. We have no credible feedback about how many civilian deaths, injuries and dislocations we are causing as collateral damage … [and] … as with the Iraqi and Libyan campaigns, as with other Western military adventures going all the way back to interventions in Russia after the Bolshevik revolution, we have no idea whether efforts to fight evil might spawn worse evil.” I agree, unreservedly.
He winds up that theme with this: “The main lesson I draw from a lifetime’s study of history is of how little true knowledge peoples and governments have when they make public policy. We grope around in the dark, our vaunted “expertise” amounting to flickers of dim candlelight. Occasionally we are lucky and do the right thing, often for the wrong reasons. The Second World War was probably a case in point. The First World War, on the other hand, was probably a stupendous waste of lives, including those of 60,000 Canadians.” Once again, I wholeheartedly agree, point by point by point.
I part company with Professor Bliss when he concludes, fairly I hasten to add given his analysis, that “The implication of this line of argument is that Canada should be predisposed to limit its involvement in most of the world’s trouble spots to non-violent and unambiguously humanitarian help.” He acknowledges that this would be what I have said the new, Trudeau, government wants: a “neo-isolationist foreign policy” just like Pierre Trudeau wanted, and he acknowledges that it would be ~ will be, in my opinion, if Prime Minister Trudeau has his way ~ “problematical.”
I’m back to agreeing with Professor Bliss’ words, but not the implications, in his final paragraph: “Still, the evidence so far suggests that we in Canada, the United States, and Europe, do not understand the world well enough to sacrifice the lives of our young men and women, and the lives of countless other men, women, and children, in so-called “missions” into the black vortex of fighting, destruction, and death.” He’s got the right problem: we, the US led West, really don’t understand what we’re trying to accomplish; but the solution does not lie in “neo-isolationism,” it lies in electing better leaders.