John Ibitson, writing in the Globe and Mail, suggests that Justin Trudeau might want to try what former diplomat, national strategic planner in the Privy Council Office, and commentator David Mulroney refers to (on social media) as…
… “the “Ostrich” school of Canadian foreign policy.” It has, he says, two pillars:
- First, “Canada has no interests/allies“; and
- Second, “The best way to deal with bad regimes, bad people is to pretend they’re nice.“
Mr Ibbitson himself says that it may be impossible to work “with European and Asian allies, including Japan, to forge a coherent response that provokes neither the Americans nor the Iranians.“
The situation in the Middle East is, as I have explained several times, hideously complex. President Trump may have made it worse … although it’s hard for me to see how any added complications really matter all that much. The socio-cultural and religious hatreds that bedevil the region are likely beyond making “worse.”
In fact, there may be an argument that a nice, all-out, albeit contained, Middle East war might be useful. Perhaps the Iranians and Saudis and Iraqis and Syrians and Yemenis and so on need to sort one another out in the way that tends to produce lasting results: on a bloody battlefield … it worked for Europe, more than once, in 1648, in 1815 and again in 1945.
John Ibbitson says that “Iran’s rage over the U.S. assassination of Qassem Soleimani risks dragging Canada and the rest of the Western alliance into a new confrontation in the Middle East, courtesy of Donald Trump … [that true, as far as it goes, and he adds] … Most Canadians would want no part of such a conflict, especially since the U.S. President might simply be seeking to distract attention from his impending impeachment trial in the Senate … [and that, the first part about Canadians wanting no part of any conflict, is also true, but President Trump’s motives are irrelvant]. The fact is that he has ignored many Iranian provocations while he attempts, vainly, in my opinion, to disengage America from the wider world. The attack on a US embassy seems to have crossed a ‘red line.’
Mr Ibbitson says that “The Canada-U.S. relationship remains pivotal. The reworked North American free-trade agreement awaits ratification in the U.S. Senate and Canadian Parliament. Mr. Trudeau has worked hard to keep his relationship with Mr. Trump cordial, despite the President’s tendency to insult the Prime Minister, sometimes apparently just for the fun of it … [and] … Whatever tensions exist between the West Wing and the Prime Minister’s Office, the close working relationship between the U.S. and Canadian defence and security establishments remains intact.” That’s all also true. And he should have mentioned that the relationship is very, very one-sided. In economic terms, it is 10:1; in conventional military terms, it is more like 25:1, and in strategic terms, it is
But, John Ibbitson says, “Mr. Trump’s high stakes gamble – that killing one of the most senior figures in the Iranian regime will deter rather than provoke further acts of aggression from Iran – could lead to some kind of asymmetrical war, with the U.S. military attacking Iranian targets, and Iran responding through militias and proxies in Iraq and possibly in North America and Europe … [true enough, and he asks] … What would Mr. Trump expect from Canada in such a conflict?” That’s the key question.
My guesstimate is that President Trump will ask little or nothing, militarily, because his military chiefs of staff will not even have mentioned Canada when they proffer lists of nations that might help or hinder US efforts. Canada is not on any of their lists of countries that matter. Diplomatically, however, I think we do matter to the USA and I would not be surprised if the phone lines have been busy all weekend as US officials tell (rather than ask) Canadian officials to get our government ‘onside’ with the USA. The Americans hold ALL the high cards in the game of power.
I’m sure that Prime Minister Trudeau will follow John Ibbitson’s advice and adopt the “Ostrich” strategy … head buried in the sand, pretending that Canada has neither interests nor allies and pretending that evil people are good.
And make no mistake, General Qasem Soleimani was the most feared man in the Middle East for good reason. He was, as Oz Katerji, writing in the New Stateman says, “the most defining legacy in the Middle East of the man who ran Tehran’s insurgency against US forces in Iraq was not the deaths of hundreds of US service members, nor the wave of political assassinations he masterminded throughout the last two decades. Soleimani made his mark through his unrestrained barbarity towards civilians in Syria and Iraq, and he was personally responsible for the deaths of thousands of people. These include the hundreds of Iraqi civilians who were shot dead by Iraqi security forces within the last three months, acting directly under his orders … [and] … Soleimani was brutal, merciless, and ruthlessly efficient at his trade, slaughtering his way across the Middle East in the pursuit of regional hegemony. If he could not bulldoze his way through civilian infrastructure, he had a near endless supply of impoverished, forcibly recruited Shia conscripts from Afghanistan and Pakistan that he could send over the trenches in World War One-like human wave attacks until all resistance was broken, their lives apparently as cheap to him as the lives of the civilian protest movements he crushed.” I see that some Canadians are publicly mourning the killing of a brutal, savage, murderous barbarian. Their message is aimed at Justin Trudeau and I suspect he wants to sympathize with them. The hundreds and thousands who mourn the death of Qasem Soleimani are showing us that the veneer of civilization is very, very thin, indeed. Anyone who mourns the passing of the butcher of the Middle East is lacking the most basic thing that separates humans from beasts: empathy. But we, humans, are very often only too willing to abandon empathy in the name of religion or political ideology.
We, Canadians, must be very clear: Qasem Soleimani and the regime he served are threats to regional peace, at least, his death should be welcomed, and the demise of the current Iranian regime is to be hoped for at every level. Why President Trump ordered his elimination is beside the point. The risk is not. Iran is almost certain to retaliate and Canadian soldiers, 250 of whom are part of a NATO mission in Iraq, commanded by Major General Jennie Carignan, are in harm’s way. They will be attractive targets. I hope the government has started preparing a battle-group(+) (a battalion of infantry ~ 850± soldiers, a battery of artillery, a squadron of tanks and engineers, signals and logistics troops) and a “six-pack” of CF-18 fighters to deploy to Iraq to reinforce the NATO mission … but I doubt that has happened or is even being contemplated.
President Trump has put the region in a tricky position. I think that the least bad outcome is Iran turns its murderous attentions towards Eqypt, Saudi Arabia and Turkey ~ its rivals for leadership in North Africa, the Middle East and South-West Asia. Canada should be prepared to sell arms to all sides. But it may be that Iran will attack our people in the region and may even launch terrorist attacks in North American including in Canada. If that happens we must be ready to respond, swiftly, with extreme violence.
Oz Katerji says (link above) that, “There is no scenario in which Iran’s regime, for all its regional strength and power, can win in a conventional war against the United States military. For all its bellicose rhetoric and belligerence, it prefers to focus its aggression against civilian protesters or poorly armed farmers on the backs of pick-up trucks than it does against military powers, as clearly shown by its near total lack of response to Israel’s repeated air strikes against Iranian targets in Syria over the last few years. But Trump’s unpredictability and the previously unthinkable situation we find ourselves in today has torn the conventional rule book to shreds. We are in uncharted waters without a compass, and Trump’s abysmal record on foreign policy proves there is absolutely nobody at the wheel.” He’s right and Iran will, typically, look for US proxies to attack … and Canada may be one of them.
It may be possible for Canada to avoid open, armed conflict in the Middle East. What will not be possible, in my opinion, is to make a success out of John Ibbitson’s proposal for an Ostrich strategy.