When the inevitable question came Thursday, Stephen Harper was ready.
Had the prime minister gone back on his word? Had he broken an explicit promise by sending Canadian ground troops to the front lines in Iraq where, not surprisingly, they found themselves in combat?
Harper, his shirt open at the neck, his spectacles replaced by contact lenses, gazed at the television cameras and slipped into the vernacular.
“If those guys fire at us, we’re going to fire back and we’re going to kill them, just like our guys did,” he said. Conservative MPs and aides, on hand for a business-subsidy announcement in St. Catharines applauded lustily.
For a government tiptoeing into war, this was — politically at least — as good as it gets.
The Iraq War against Islamic State militants is Canada’s third in 13 years. The first two were not stunning successes.
In Afghanistan, the U.S.-led coalition failed to defeat the Taliban.
In Libya, a NATO coalition did drive dictator Moammar Gadhafi from power. But it also left the country in chaos, allowing Islamic militants throughout North Africa to arm themselves from Gadhafi’s plundered armouries.
Libya, however, also highlighted an old political adage: Wars can be popular — as long as the hometown team doesn’t get hurt.
So far, the Iraq conflict has been a perfect war for the governing Conservatives. The coalition to which Canada belongs may or may not be making significant inroads against the Islamic State in Iraq (views differ). But Canadian troops are performing bravely and — most important — doing so with zero casualties there.
To many voters the fact that Canadian snipers were, in the military’s chilling phrase, able to “neutralize” the enemy is a matter of pride.
Harper gets that and he will use it to advantage in this year’s election.
But the more sobering reminder from last week’s firefight in Iraq is that war is unpredictable.
Was Gen. Tom Lawson, the chief of defence staff, deliberately fibbing when he told CTV last fall that Canadian commandos would neither accompany Iraqi troops to the front line nor act as spotters for coalition airstrikes — a statement that turned out to be untrue?
My guess is that he wasn’t — that this was the Canadian role at the time but, as always happens in war, things changed.
Which is another way of saying that mission creep in inevitable. As former prime minister Jean Chrétien put it last fall when talking about war: “You cannot be a little bit in it. You’re in or out.”
Oddly enough, Chrétien’s own Liberal party didn’t appreciate that bit of wisdom. Justin Trudeau’s Liberals may have balked at sending warplanes to Iraq. But they were solidly behind sending Canadian military advisers.
Did they really think that, once in Iraq, the 69 highly trained Canadian commandos would never venture close to battle?
If history is any guide, the pressure for more mission creep can only increase, no matter which party forms the next government.
Canada has long found it hard to deny U.S. military requests. We stayed out of the Vietnam War mainly because Washington never asked us to join in (Australia and South Korea weren’t so lucky).
Chrétien famously declined to participate in George W. Bush’s 2003 invasion of Iraq. But he was able to do so only because of Bush’s inability to win United Nations backing.
Indeed, Canada’s decision to snub Bush in 2003 upped the pressure on Ottawa to send more fighting forces to Afghanistan in 2006.
This newest war is being cast in apocalyptic terms. Harper has called it a war against “the international jihadist movement.” American Secretary of State John Kerry has compared it to the battle against fascism of the Second World War.
Odds are that the U.S. will eventually convince itself that it must commit more ground troops. That’s when Ottawa will really feel pressure to do the same.
Would any Canadian government buck such pressure? The Liberals are already split. Even Tom Mulcair’s New Democrats have left the door to military involvement slightly ajar.
But that’s all for later. Right now, for a prime minister seeking re-election, this is a lovely little war — just as it is.