Why Trudeau is lost on the Middle East

The many ways the Prime Minister’s position on the fight against ISIS is still shot through with contradictions

U.S. Air Force Photo by Staff Sgt. Perry Aston/CP

U.S. Air Force Photo by Staff Sgt. Perry Aston/CP

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has had almost two months since his election win to craft a sensible response to the question of why he’s withdrawing Canada’s CF-18s (and possibly other aircraft) from the combat mission against the so-called Islamic State. He hasn’t come up with one yet, and didn’t again Wednesday when asked by a member of the public at the Maclean’s Town Hall in Ottawa.

You almost want to sympathize with the guy, because his position—by its own logic—is shot through with contradictions.

Islamic State, he says, must be confronted, including militarily, and Canada must play a role in the fight against it. “The question that we have to ask ourselves, as a government and as a country,” he said during the Maclean’s Town Hall, “is how best can we help.”

Trudeau suggested that training local forces to take the fight to Islamic State is the answer. This is a skill, he said, that Canadian troops honed during 10 years in Afghanistan.

Fair enough, although training is hardly the only thing Canadians did over there. But there’s a strange implication here that Canada can’t do both: bomb Islamic State and train local forces. This, of course, is what Canada has been doing for more than a year. Trudeau added: “We know that Western armies engaged in combat is not necessarily the way to solve the challenges in the Middle East.”

This is a popular trope, but in this case it’s irrelevant. No one is suggesting Canada send an infantry battalion to the frontlines in Syria. The question Trudeau was asked is why he’s pulling out the fighter jets.

Maybe Trudeau also thinks airstrikes are ineffective. Evidence on the ground suggests otherwise. Islamic State has been stopped and in places pushed back as a result of coalition warplanes, including Canadian ones, coordinating their airstrikes with local forces on the ground.

But if this is what Trudeau thinks, let him say so clearly. Let him make the case that the air campaign isn’t working. It certainly has not been sufficient, but to argue that it’s not doing much good would require Trudeau to marshal evidence and rhetorical skills he has not yet deployed.

For that matter, if engaging in combat is not a productive way for Western nations to “solve the challenges in the Middle East,” as Trudeau says, why is he continuing with a “training” mission that involves Canadian soldiers calling in airstrikes and, on more than one occasion, shooting at Islamic State fighters on the frontlines?

It also appears that Trudeau will keep Canada’s refuelling and surveillance aircraft in the coalition.

This is noteworthy. During the election campaign, I asked Trudeau’s spokesman, Dan Lauzon, whether, if elected, Trudeau would withdraw those planes as well as the CF-18s.

“A Liberal government would transition away from all aspects of the combat air mission to re-focus our military role on training,” he responded by email.

This seemed to me to be leaving some wiggle room, so I wrote back:

“Thanks, Dan. I’m sorry for being redundant, but I want to be crystal clear. Would the surveillance and refuelling planes be withdrawn? I just want to be sure that your statement isn’t intended to be leaving grey areas in which those planes would continue to operate.”

Lauzon’s complete response: “Hi Michael — All aspects of the combat mission.”

Now, it’s possible Lauzon was being deceptive—not telling a bald-faced lie, a particularly brazen lawyer might argue, but engaging in deception all the same. If that’s the case, Trudeau should probably not make further claims about running an open and transparent government.

But let’s give Trudeau the benefit of the doubt and assume he did in fact intend to pull out the surveillance and refuelling planes, but will now keep them flying because he recognizes they’re doing good work.

The good work they’re doing is combat. Those planes aren’t dropping bombs. But how is finding targets and relaying that information to allied planes who then drop bombs on them any less combat-related than if Canadian pilots were to continue dropping the bombs themselves?

This is where the contradictions in Trudeau’s policy on fighting Islamic State really get messy—because despite panning a combat role for Western militaries in the Middle East, and despite plans to withdraw Canadian warplanes from the fight against Islamic State, he’s also admitted the coalition’s bombing mission is effective. Asked by the BBC last month to clarify that he’s not against bombing Islamic State, Trudeau replied: “Indeed.”

So now we’re left with a hodgepodge of statements and positions from Trudeau that don’t add up to a coherent policy:

–       Canada’s armed forces do an extraordinary job of whatever they’re asked to do.

–       There are things we can do better than drop bombs.

–       Bombing isn’t an effective way for Western nations to solve problems in the Middle East.

–       I’m not against bombing Islamic State.

–       We will transition from combat to training (even though Canada is clearly capable of doing both).

One final thing: In the Maclean’s Town Hall, Trudeau pointed out that U.S. President Barack Obama hasn’t asked him to keep the CF-18s flying.

Obama hasn’t asked, because he doesn’t want to embarrass Trudeau. The reciprocal courtesy is for Trudeau not to imply the absence of that request means Obama doesn’t want Canada to keep its CF-18s in the air over Iraq and Syria. He does—as do the leaders of Britain, France and other allied countries. If Trudeau isn’t careful, one of them might say so publicly.


Why Trudeau is lost on the Middle East

  1. Thanks for this article. It is refreshing to see that at least one journalist at Maclean’s is willing to hold Trudeau to account rather than fawning over his every move. Even if one were to disagree with his stance on the Middle East, one should at least be able to follow his logic with it. The reality is that you can’t and this article displays that perfectly.

  2. For the most part Trudeau has absolutely no idea as to what he is doing, this applies to all that he does. Not just his illogical approach to the Middle East. Which is why he has had to backtrack or otherwise refuses to comment on his pre-election promises.
    Unfortunately our esteemed PM has more interest in self promotion and maximum media exposure than running the country. For him, running the country is no more than a vehicle for his narcissism.

  3. Very good points. I’m not a fan of this Liberal government, but I do hope they’ll learn from the mistakes and think before they say or do something else.

  4. Canada (and every other country involved in the coalition against ISIS for that matter) has a finite amount of funds it is willing to contribute to the effort. If Trudeau and the government feel that they can have a greater impact on a limited budget by pulling out the F18s and ramping its training role, then what is wrong with this? Training foreign troops is after all an area of particular strength for our military.

    To suggest we can do both ignores the fact that we doing both would require additional spending.

  5. i’m not finding it at all difficult to make sense of those statements, or having any difficulty making sense of the liberal policy on the issue. but, i think i give up on this. the media is clearly trying to beat the war drums. why, i’m not sure.

    • War Drums…really… you really dont now why.No war drums , just asking questions that dont get answered. Same ole same ole Liberal party. McCallum is a dinasaur , and Tredeau is a silver spoon still in his mouth baby with no ideas that are going to work in this global climate. The USA will not bring refuges in ….why….because they know what will follow. We are pulling out of the middle east when everyone else is ramping up against these monsters ….but o no not Justin , lets sit around the fire and sing songs with everyone Trudeau. Lets bring all the people who cant take care of themselves and will not fight for their own freedom but will take our charity and my tax money to live a great life in my country , bringing and having more offspring at my expense,taking jobs from our unemployed .taking lodging and medicare from our own.We do not take care of the ones or their families that gave their time and lives to fight for these peoples freedom. I don not support these decisions but I quess I do not have a choice. What a graet country. Screw you Trudeau. Go Away

  6. Hello Michael,

    I read this article and I feel as though you think we live in a world where everything is black and white. You offer very little substance, but a lot of over the top wordplay. You are criticizing the hell out of Trudeau, though you’re coming across as immature, more than having a valid argument. You go into depth about what Trudeau isn’t doing and what he’s doing wrong (sure there are faults), though you only scratch the surface of the basis of your opinion and don’t talk about the negatives of this stance. You seem as though you don’t know the meanings of contradiction and context. Is this intentional in hopes that the reader doesn’t know the meaning either? Is that the audience that you’re after? People that can’t think for themselves and will just regurgitate your articles and opinion? One Example; In your list of “hodgepodge statements” there are the two quotes “Bombing isn’t an effective… to solve problems in the Middle East” and “I’m not against bombing Islamic State”. Do you honestly believe that this is a contradiction? You think Islamic State and the Middle East are the same thing? I’m sure you don’t think so, but a lot of people that read this might think that’s what you meant.

    You don’t talk about the civilians. The women and children that are living among the ruins, not knowing if today will be their last. Yes, Islamist extremists are killed during bombing campaigns, great, but so are a lot innocent people. Like I said… this decision, like many, is not so black and white, regardless of what our allies are doing.

    You’re in a position of power. You have an audience. It would be great if you offered potential solutions that will benefit humanity and our country, instead of criticizing those that are doing the best that they can and privy to a hell of a lot more information than you are. You are misleading the uninformed. Lead with an informed opinion, not your extreme political beliefs. Extremism has many forms. Though obviously it’s okay to disagree with Trudeau or parts of his very young platform, but have a little respect. He’s our countries Prime Minister. Maybe instead of saying Trudeau this, Liberals that, try saying Canada. We are in this together.

    You are right about one thing. It has been two months since our Prime Minister was elected. What has any of us done in the last two months? It’s really not a lot of time. You can’t just bomb everybody when there’s a problem. This is a little more complicated than you allude to.

    • Our PM communicates very well. I enjoy listening to him.
      I don’t necessarily see things in black and white, but the problems are much more serious than the PM lets on.
      The way he spoke yesterday had the ring of Obama on his first visit to Turkey. What conflict had been avoided, what life has been saved by Obama’s rapprochement with the Muslim world?
      Trudeau’s disconnect from a portion of the population is evident in the way he responds to Trump. The reason people support Trump is because they believe he will protect them. They don’t believe their president will keep the US safe.
      Trudeau seems to like the line ‘fear doesn’t make us safer.’ Of course it doesn’t. Planning makes us safer. So what are we planning to do about IS? Oh, as the article reminds us, there still is no plan to deal with IS and the threat they pose to Canadians.

      • “The reason people support Trump is because they believe he will protect them. They don’t believe their president will keep the US safe.”

        And Trump will?

        I don’t think so…. He’d be out of ammo in an afternoon, before the real fights start. The man has no depth, just bluster. He’d push the button just because he could, which is why he must never have the opportunity to do so. The most important power is the ability to refrain from using it. “Walk softly” et cetera. Not one of Trump’s talents, is it?

    • “…try saying Canada. We are in this together.”

      Thank you for an excellent set of comments! Very well said!

  7. I read comments about how we should be doing this, and doing that, but it’s always people who will never be on the pointy end of the stick. As for bombing, it didn’t work in Viet Nam; and much of the angst over bombing goes back to what we knew in that war, for my generation at least.

    May cooler heads prevail.

    • But Canada is still going to assist in the war effort, which means either directly or indirectly assisting in the bombing. I think that’s the part that many people have trouble wrapping their heads around – there’s little real difference in doing the actual bombing versus assisting in it.

      I’m pretty much of the opinion to either be in all the way, or withdraw totally – there are defensible arguments for either approach IMO. Trying to find a compromise position doesn’t really work when it comes to warfare.

      • “The ill-fated Gallipoli Campaign lasted nine months before the evacuation of the last Allied troops in January 1916. Each side sustained 250,000 casualties with 46,000 Allied troops and 65,000 Turkish troops dead.”

        After which, Mr. Churchill (the principal architect of the campaign) learned that it is better to talk and find other ways to end conflicts, like cutting off the enemy’s supplies and finances.

        When you say “all in”, how many casualties are you prepared to accept? And will you be heading to the recruiting office any time soon to do your bit?

        • [Well this is a late response unlikely to be read by anyone, but here it is …]

          The Gallipoli Campaign was in WW1. Well, in WW2 Churchill was running things as PM, and England was involved in the aerial bombing of Germany and in D-Day – both of which amounted to significantly more than merely “cutting off the enemy’s supplies and finances.

          As for when I’ll be heading to the recruiting office – that’s an irrelevant question. As long as Canada does not have a draft, the men and women sent into combat are people who had joined the Armed Forces voluntarily and in full knowledge that they could be asked to risk life and limb. That certainly doesn’t mean that they should be viewed as expendable or sent to fight unwinnable causes, but combat is part of their chosen profession.

          BTW, I did say the other defensible position is total withdrawal. Let the Middle East sort itself out, as the West seems to just screw things up when it gets involved there.

    • Reports this week they’re executing disabled children. Nonetheless, I will try to keep my head cool.

  8. Why This Article is lost on Partisans — The many ways that taking sides at any jurisdiction of politics is still shot through with contradictions

    The partisans have had almost two months of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, and yet they have yet to formulate an understanding of taking the soft power approach to the international level that he is already exercising…

    • Talking about flying it appears Trudeau is flying, by the seat of his pants. He truly does not know what to do and should simply say we are examining the situation. Harper was chastised for having training members in a combat situation (when confronted) and any more training personnel will increase this risk. So if we refer to keeping Canadian military safe, this will be reduced with more boots on the ground even if in a training role.

      • Canada’s role in the bombing action is minor. There is no valid reason to continue in it when the “enemy” is already being bombed to a fare-the-well and untold numbers of civilians are being killed. This particular war will not be won by making more and more enemies – and that’s just what the bombing does.

        • As happened last week when our so called training military force was in gun combat with the opposition, it was our air strikes that helped them out specifically. If Canada has feet on the ground and are engaging in combat we need our jets around to bail them out. As our jets will have a real interest in saving our troops. We need both to some degree.

  9. Trudeau is a politician. He makes vague promises that have a lot of wiggle-room… you find this surprising? He campaigned on pulling the fighter jets. Yes, lots of vague terms bantered about that people could read into them what they want. Some read “bring everyone home” while others saw leaving the support aircraft and increasing the trainers. It’s all wiggle-room to a politician, as well crafted election promises often are.

    So, he pulls out the fighters, because there’s no wiggle-room there, other than when. Then, he puts trainers in to keep President “no boots on the ground” Obama happy. Do you think the electorate would accept a broken promise like this? Do you really think Obama cares about 6 extra fighter/bombers? Pull the fighters, put boots on the ground. Electorate is happy, allies are happy. Win-win.

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