The situation in and around the Middle East is horrifically complex and changes fast. A couple of days ago Murray Brewster wrote, for CBC News, that “A NATO team has been meeting at the U.S. State Department in recent days to draft proposals on what an expanded alliance presence in the Middle East would like … [but] … Canada’s foreign affairs minister says NATO’s acceptance of a redefined mission could depend upon how willing the Americans are to stick around — particularly in Iraq.“
It is my belief that President Trump is a true nationalist-isolationist. When he says “America First” he really means, ‘America First, and only.’ He neither likes nor trusts alliances. In that, he reflects a large segment, perhaps a majority of Americans who view all foreigners, including Australians, Brits and Canadians, as weak and untrustworthy. I think that President Trump really wants to pull American forces from the Middle East, from Europe and from Asia. He believes, mistakenly as it turns out, that America can, quickly and efficiently deploy and sustain a large enough force anywhere it is needed. The world is correct to doubt President Trump’s commitment to anything or anyone. But the world would be wrong to think that he is an aberration; he’s not, President Trump speaks for, at least, a very, very large minority of Americans. They are tired of defending the world with too little help and no thanks from those they are protecting. The world is also wrong, see the link above about the US Navy’s Sealift Command, if it thinks that America can, like the cavalry in the old Western films, ride to rescue in the nick of time.
Mr Brester goes on to say that “U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, speaking to reporters in Washington on Friday, said the Trump administration is looking to carry out military missions in the region “with fewer resources” and is calling on NATO to help …[he added that the NATO team] … will develop a plan “which will get burden-sharing right in the region … so that we can continue the important missions to protect and defend and keep the American people safe while reducing our cost, our resources, and our burden, and the risk to our soldiers and sailors …“
Murray Brester says that “The use of the phrase “burden sharing” led to some raised eyebrows in Canadian government and defence circles — because that’s the language U.S. President Donald Trump has used for years to hound allies into spending more on collective defence.” I have discussed the burden-sharing problem many times in these pages since Donald Trump was elected. It is a problem for Canada because, since the days of Pierre Trudeau, we have been content, as former Deputy Prime Minister John Manley put it, to be the country that enjoys a nice meal and then heads to the bathroom when the bill comes. Generally, 2002-2014 excepted (when Paul Martin and Stephen Harper were prime ministers) …
… Canada has been a slacker when it comes to doing anything like a full or even fair share of keeping the globe safe for our people and our friends. And most Canadians have known we are slackers and most Canadians are content with that. Donald J Trump is not.
There are policy and political pros and cons for NATO taking on any role in the Middle East. But, pro or con, Professor Steve Saideman who is director of the Canadian Defence and Security Network and a professor at Carleton University, reminds us (in the article linked above) that “NATO operates by consensus … [and he says] … “Good luck getting consensus on this, given Trump’s attitudes about NATO and what he’s done with NATO the past four years … [and] … given that this would be asking NATO to take over this situation at a time where Iraq is getting more and more dangerous.”“
President Trump, Professor Saideman notes, “has spent the better part of his presidency questioning NATO’s relevance, telling its member nations they don’t pay enough of mission costs and hinting the U.S. might not come to their defence in a crisis unless they pony up more cash … [while] … allies like Canada and others operating in Iraq are irritated about not being given a heads-up about the Soleimani killing.” I have absolutely no doubt that the CBC’s Katie Simpson’s piece for CBC News which said that “Canada should have been warned in advance by the Americans of U.S. President Donald Trump’s plan to kill a high-ranking Iranian military general with a drone strike,” came straight from the Prime Minister’s Office. I also have no doubt that no one the Foggy Bottom (the US State Department), the Pentagon or the White House cares what Canada thinks should or should not have happened. The strike on General Soleimani was, certainly, coordinated with Israel … some sources suggest that Israel provided the key intelligence that made the strike possible. I doubt that many others were told what was going to happen before the event.
Should NATO be more involved in the Middle East?
I honestly have doubts.
I’m not sure that NATO has much of a mission any more, anywhere. Russian opportunistic adventurism is a real danger. It has moved into Crimea and it wants to connect Kaliningrad (circled in yellow) to Belarus and to Russia proper. The only corridor is through the territory of NATO members Lituania and/or Poland. But I’m not sure either is a major strategic threat to peace in Europe.
I have had growing doubts about NATO since the expansion began in 1999. I believe that the Russians believed, in the 1990s, the United States and NATO promised, explicitly, that there would be no expansion of NATO into the former Warsaw Pact. The US and NATO deny this. The evidence suggests that Russia was given an implicit assurance that the former Warsaw Pact nations (the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland (the 1999 expansion), Bulgaria, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Romania, Slovakia, Slovenia (2004) and Albania and Croatia (2009)) would remain as a “buffer” between NATO and Russia. I think that Russia understood that its former empire would be gobbled up by the European Union, but I believe that Mikhail Gorbachev heard (but perhaps he only “heard between the lines”) President George HW Bush say that the “buffer” would be in place. I believe that NATO, including the USA and Canada, broke its word to Russia. Broken word or not, I believe that NATO’s expansion in the 1990s and 2000s was a political and operational blunder that has given Putin’s Russia a potent propaganda weapon to use against us.
NATO’s management of military operations in Kosovo and Afghanistan (and in lesser operations, e.g. the Libyan bombing campaign) did not inspire confidence … not in me, at least
That being said, North Africa and the Middle East are in Europe’s back yard. Arguably, right now, in January 20202, events in the Middle East pose a threat to Europe’s peace and security, and NATO is Europe’s only effective military alliance.
Thus, I think, there is a valid case to be made for NATO playing an enhanced, expanded role in the Middle East … under, of necessity, American leadership which is, at the political level, at least, very suspect. I suspect the Middle East might be a significant threat area for ALL NATO members. It could be the equivalent of the threat, to Western Europe, posed by the Warsaw Pact in the 1950s, ’60s, and ’70s. It could be what NATO actually needs to be relevant, again.
I believe that NATO should create a joint (Navy, Army, Air Force) Allied Expeditionary Force (AEF) consisting of, at least:
- A large naval flotilla to be based in the Eastern Mediterranean, perhaps “homeported” in either Piraeus (in NATO member Greece) or Haifa;
- A large Army formation of more than one division ~ probably a small corps ~ with one division forward-deployed to, perhaps, Jordan (which could be, fairly easily, I suspect, persuaded to “invite” NATO there; and
- A substantial air force ~
- An offensive air (bomber and ground attack squadrons) formation,
- A defensive air (fighter squadrons and air defence missile batteries) formation to protect bases and lines of communications; and
- An air-transport (cargo/transport squadron) formation.
Canada will not be able to contribute much. Perhaps a ship and maybe a few transport aircraft. But I doubt the sort of mission I think should happen ~ something akin to how NATO faced the Soviet threat in the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s ~ will ever materialize. My guess is that the current Canadian government will want to wriggle out of any military commitment ~ the lack of consensus that Professor Saideman discusses will see Canada on the “no” side, but quietly on the “no” side so as not annoy Donald Trump.
But, what is in Canada’s vital interests?
What are Canada’s strategic aims?
First, as retired Lieutenant General Michael Day, who formerly commanded Canada ‘s famous JTF2 asnd Canada’s Special Operations Forces, said, just the other day, on social media: “Notwithstanding the emotion of the moment there should be real hesitation before the impact of this tragedy is allowed to influence other decisions regarding the challenges of determining next steps in the region.” Decisions to commit people and resources ~ blood and treasure ~ need to be taken with great care and, preferably, without too much emotional baggage.
Here, paraphrasing General Day, again are our immediate interests:
- Iraq needs ongoing support;
- ISIS needs to be fought; and
- NATO needs to be supported in whatever course it decides.
“These value propositions should be self-evident,” Michael Day says, and I agree. Canada, as a major, global trading nation does have interests, even vital interests, in restoring and maintaining peace in the Middle East.
The other, somewhat more local of Canada’s involvement in the region is significantly more complex, Michael Day says, and again I agree. He adds that supporting US expeditionary deployments has been a policy of both Liberal and Conservative governments. It resonates in Washington and most particularly Capital Hill and the White House … but it does not, always, not since the Vietnam War, anyway, resonate in Canada. In fact, Canadian support for post-Korean US military actions has been pretty solid on the diplomatic front ~ Canada has only rarely made direct, public criticism of US military actions ~ but actual support has been weak to non-existent. But Canadian governments cannot afford to tell the US what a usually pretty solid majority of Canadian voters actually think.
Canada needs to consider and protect and promote its own vital interests, which include:
- Maintaining the best possible relations, in all things, with the USA. Like it or not, America is our most important trading partner and, pretty much the guarantor of our security and prosperity. Again, like it or not, and the Laurentian Elites do not, America, Donald Trump’s America, is our best and most important “friend” in the world ~ but remember Palmerston;
- Maintaining our position as an important middle power. Some, me included, will argue that we have lost that position, that we are, now, only a “lesser power,” ranking well below, say, Germany, Italy, and even the Netherlands and Australia. That means keeping a voice in NATO;
- Maintaining friendly trading relations around the world, and that includes with China, India, Indonesia, Isreal, Jordan, Malaysia, Nigeria, the Philippines, Saudi Arabia, South Africa and Singapore. Our policies must not discriminate based on any factors like race or religion. We must, as Michael Day said, continue to fight against Da’esh/ISIL/ISIS and so Boko Haram and so on, but only because they are murdering terrorists, not because they are Ismalic or Black; and
- Maintaining our own internal security and our national unity. That means that we must consider how Canadians, in their many and diverse communities, see the situation in the Middle East. The government, not just the politicians, most consider what Canadians want and what they will support. Our experiences from 2001, when the Twin Towers were attacked in New York, to 2014, when we withdrew from Afghanistan, are instructive.