If Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s rationale for possibly signing Canada up for a combat role in the international military mission against Islamic State militants in the Middle East sounds familiar it is because it borrows heavily from the case he made at the time of the 2003 Iraq War.
“We do not stand on the sidelines and watch. We do our part. That’s always been how this country has handled its international responsibilities, and as long as I’m Prime Minister that’s what we will continue to do,” Harper said on Friday.
In the House of Commons on Tuesday, the prime minister added that the U.S.-led intervention was “noble and necessary.”
As leader of the Opposition a decade ago, Harper’s case for Canada’s participation in the American-led coalition against Saddam Hussein was also essentially based on the contention that the country had an absolute moral duty to join its closest allies in a quasi-holy war.
By using the same rhetorical yardstick to measure Canada’s obligation to join a strikingly different international military engagement, the prime minister is probably not helping his own cause with a skeptical public.
Over time most Canadians have come to think that staying out of the Iraq fray was one of Jean Chrétien’s inspired decisions. And Canada’s lengthy engagement in Afghanistan has soured many on the merits of military missions in the region.
But the prime minister’s take is consistent with his conviction that shades of grey have no place in the conduct of Canada’s foreign policy. Fans and foes of Harper’s black-and-white approach to international affairs will find themselves in familiar territory.
By the same token few will be surprised if the NDP turns out to be equally faithful to its track record. The party opposed Canada’s military involvement in Iraq and in Afghanistan. It made a brief exception for airstrikes against the Gadhafi regime in Libya in 2011 but withdrew its support for that combat mission at the first opportunity.
The New Democrats’ argument that Canada could do more constructive work in the region by sticking to the humanitarian front is not without foundation. There has always been more than one way for Canada to carry it weight on the international scene.
But if past history informs the evolving positions of the Conservatives and the NDP, what of the Liberals who declined to join the war on Iraq but initiated Canada’s combat mission in Afghanistan — a military endeavour the party supported to the bitter end?
Last month, the party came out in support of Harper’s initial decision to send a contingent of Canadian military advisers to the region, a move that prompted Chrétien to note in a subsequent interview that Canada’s hand was now in the wringer of another Iraq war.
Since then the Liberals have insisted that they have not taken a definitive stance on a possible combat role for Canada in the widening front against Islamic State, leaving the door open to opposing such a move on Harper’s part.
From pipelines to international trade, there is no lack of examples of general Conservative policy directions upon which Justin Trudeau has been content to stick a Liberal smiley face rather than chart a substantially different course.
Up to a point, it is an approach that makes strategic sense for — even as support for the Conservatives is declining — a plurality of voters feel that the country is headed in the right direction.
But in this instance, substance matters more than style and holding a finger out in the air to determine which way the public opinion wind is blowing is of little use, for the history of military engagements suggests that initial public and/or editorial enthusiasm is no guarantee of enduring support or, for that matter, success.
Even if the NDP and the Liberals declined to support a government decision to take on a combat role in the war on Islamic State, the Conservative majority would carry the day in a House of Commons vote. But it would be the first time that Harper sends troops in combat without Liberal agreement.
One way or another though the international engagement against Islamic extremists will not be resolved between now and next year’s federal election.
Canada’s next Parliament will find an active Islamic State file waiting for it.