It started small. It’s getting bigger. Get ready for more Canadian troops to be involved — somehow — in U.S. President Barack Obama’s rapidly expanding Middle East war.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper made it official Wednesday, when he revealed that he’s been asked by Washington to provide more help in the battle against Islamic State militants in Iraq and Syria.
He wouldn’t say what the U.S. has asked him to do.
Typically, Harper chose to make the announcement abroad — in this case at a session with business people in New York.
He said his government had not yet decided whether it will do what Obama wants. But that’s almost certainly hooey.
If Harper hadn’t decided to accede to the U.S. request he never would have risked embarrassing Obama by revealing it.
Indeed, pressure on Canada to play a bigger role in America’s latest war has been building for some time.
On the foreign side, Canada’s traditional allies are contributing far more than Ottawa in the battle against Islamic State militants.
France has joined the U.S. air war in Iraq. Press reports say that Britain and the Netherlands are preparing to do the same.
Australia has already committed 600 troops and eight fighter jets.
Obama has even persuaded some Arab states to help the U.S. bomb Islamic State strongholds in Syria.
All of this means that Harper’s Sept. 5 offer of 69 military “advisors” to train Kurdish fighters in Iraq no longer looks quite so generous.
On the domestic front, much of the pressure comes from the Canadian government itself.
In speech after speech, Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird describes the fight against the Islamic State as the epic battle of this generation.
“These terrorists talk openly about wanting to establish a caliphate from India to the south of Spain,” he told the United Nations Security Council last week.
“To confront them, we must rely on the forces that have shaped human history … principles that have withstood the tests of fascism, of communism and now terrorism.”
Defence Minister Rob Nicholson has called the Islamic State “a real and growing threat to civilization itself.”
If all of this is true, it is hard for Ottawa to explain why sending just 69 advisors is enough.
Indeed, the fact the government is using such extravagant language suggests that even before the American request, it was preparing Canadians for more robust military action.
That task may not be too difficult. A Forum poll earlier this month estimated that 56 per cent of Canadians believe the Islamic State poses a direct threat to Canada, while only 30 per cent think it does not.
In fact, many experts say this particular terror group does not have the capability to mount a serious attack in North America.
But its well-publicized beheadings of westerners appear to have convinced the public otherwise.
The government had said it would review its military commitment after 30 days — that is, early next month. In New York, Harper said his cabinet is still debating what exactly it will do next.
Whatever action Ottawa takes must fit four political criteria:
First, it must be bold enough to fit the government’s rhetoric. In a war to protect civilization from the barbarians, supplying sleeping bags to Kurdish irregulars will not suffice politically.
Second, it must be roughly in line with what the Americans have asked for. Otherwise, Harper risks annoying Washington unnecessarily.
Third, it must avoid the kind of ground combat that would lead to politically inopportune casualties that could cost Harper votes in next year’s general election.
Fourth, it shouldn’t be too expensive. The Afghan war cost Canada more than $1 billion a year. But now, the government hopes to save its money for pre-election goodies and tax breaks.
The bottom line, however, is that we’re in it for the long haul. Just a few months after we extricated ourselves from Afghanistan, Canadians are being drawn further into another war of uncertain length and dubious aims.