How we joined the battle for Iraq

Harper, Mulcair, Trudeau and the real and existential questions between them

Canada's PM Harper outlines his government's plan to participate in a military campaign against Islamic State militants

Under questioning in the House on Tuesday, Stephen Harper offered a first goal for the now-specified mission in Iraq. “This has a broad range of support from the international community, including not just conservatives but liberals and social democrats the world over,” he said, “and I think we should put partisanship aside in this chamber as well.”

This is one of those things that partisans say when they want to sound enlightened. But it is as sensible as it is problematic. Of course, we should hope that a genuine interest in the best interests of the nation and the international community are foremost when the decision to commit to violence and destruction is at hand. But it would be some indictment of partisanship if we decided that it was useful for making all our collective choices except the most serious one.

Which is not to say that we shouldn’t hope for some cross-party effort at these moments. But we might not too easily expect it, or be too disappointed by its absence.

By the noon hour today, the Prime Minister had nuanced his ask.

“I urge all members to consider and to support the motion we have presented. I do this in recognizing that in a democracy, especially one approaching an election, there is rarely political upside in supporting any kind of military action and little risk in opposing it,” he said, an astute bit of speechmaking in its play at breaking the fourth wall. “However, to ensure regional and global security and, of course, the safety of Canadians, such intervention is necessary.”

It’s at that last word that matters get complicated.

The Prime Minister’s speech was as unpartisan as one might’ve hoped for. He began with an indictment of ISIL’s horrors, both realized and promised. He listed the nations he would have us join and the efforts he intended us to expend. After days of questions, there were nods to the doubters and their doubts. Harper explained for how long this new mission would last (six months), what would also be included (humanitarian aid) and what he would not have us do (commit our own men and women to ground combat). He made a specific statement on the mission’s objective: “We intend to significantly degrade the capabilities of ISIL, specifically, its ability to either engage in military movements of scale, or to operate bases in the open.” He offered to elaborate on a couple points (explaining that bombs would only be dropped on the countries that invited them and that the government was conscious of the need to keep the country out of a quagmire).

He stood and delivered his speech from a small lectern perched atop Peter Van Loan’s desk, discarding each completed page on the House leader’s desk as he went, his hands resting in front of him—not a finger wag or hand chop or shrug or pumped fist for any of the nearly 15 minutes he stood and spoke. Not until three-quarters of the way through his remarks, when he invoked the “Canadian way”—defined here as never leaving the fighting of necessary battles to other nations—did his caucus even applaud. (And oh how rare and lovely it is to go so long without hearing clapping in this place.)

The Prime Minister’s only use of the word “war” was in the past tense, in a neat attempt at spacing and justifying. “The evidence of the necessity of this” mission, he said, “is none better than the fact that the mission has been launched by President Obama, the leader who had withdrawn American troops and proudly ended the war in Iraq.”

Thomas Mulcair would use the w-word, and its French translation, eight times (Justin Trudeau would speak it another 11 times). The NDP leader’s turn with the floor was a series of counterpoints and quibbles—thirteen question marks in the resulting transcript. “There is no more important decision that we make in the House, no more sacred trust for a Prime Minister, than sending young Canadian women and men to fight and risk making the ultimate sacrifice in a foreign war,” Mr. Mulcair said after thanking Mr. Harper for making his announcement to the House. “The Prime Minister is asking for the support of Parliament. He is asking for Canadians’ support, but the Prime Minister has refused to answer their questions.”

The NDP leader, setting aside the threat of ISIL almost entirely, questioned nearly everything else. Here was Doubting Thomas, wondering about the cost, about the plan, about the prospects, about how this country cares for its veterans and about how the Prime Minister has not answered Mulcair’s questions to Mulcair’s satisfaction.

If Stephen Harper wants this fight to be about something beyond this place, the New Democrats and Liberals want this mission to be about him, and how he has conducted himself here.

“With this motion,” Justin Trudeau said when it was his turn, “the Prime Minister has finally said in Canada what he said in New York City more than a week ago.”

Mr. Trudeau would acknowledge the horrors of ISIL, but he too was unsatisfied with how we got to this point.

“The Prime Minister has a sacred responsibility to be honest and truthful with people, especially about matters of life and death,” the Liberal leader posited. “At the end of every decision to enter combat are a brave Canadians in harm’s way. We owe them clarity. We owe them a plan. Most of all, we owe them the truth. The Prime Minister has offered none of those.”

Yesterday, the Liberal leader had outlined four principles with which the Liberals would approach next week’s debate. Twenty-four hours later—apparently on the strength of seeing the government’s motion—he was apparently unwilling to give the Prime Minister even another day to convince him.

“The Liberal Party of Canada cannot and will not support this Prime Minister’s motion to go to war in Iraq,” he declared in closing.

That all of this was put on the floor of the House of Commons by the three party leaders was at least a small credit to the place—the members even gave Elizabeth May a chance to speak.

If George W. Bush’s presidency contributed anything of lasting value to the world it might be that he made it slightly harder to start a war—or even, in our case, join one. That Stephen Harper supported Bush’s war in Iraq was, of course, referenced by both Mulcair and Trudeau, but that military disaster would likely loom regardless of what the Prime Minister was saying as the leader of the opposition in 2003, making it easier and more tempting to be seen and heard asking questions and expressing trepidation.

There is not much comparison, at least as yet, between participating in the full scale invasion of a hostile country and making a relatively small contribution to an international campaign of airstrikes in service of a friendly nation. This would seem to have more in common with Canada’s contribution to the bombing of targets in Libya—a mission that was unanimously approved by the Commons initially (under a minority government that needed opposition support), extended by a vote of 294-1 (under a majority government, but with opposition amendments) and then extended again with Liberal support. In the case of that cause, there seems to have been some level of discussion between the parties—perhaps aided by the minority government reality that forced the parties together at the outset. In this case, seemingly less so—Mr. Trudeau lamented today in the House that there had been no briefings before today’s motion, while three years ago the Liberal critic was effusive in his thanks.

But the level of discussion might only matter if you believe that the New Democrats and Liberals would have ultimately come down differently if there’d been greater communication—whether communication can ever trump political choice. Could some kind of cross-party mandate been salvaged this week or was it already too late? Would it have changed anything if the Prime Minister had somehow answered each and every of Mulcair and Trudeau’s concerns? Or would they have just found different questions?

Was this split destined to happen, did it just sort of happen or could it have somehow been avoided? With a full airing of the private machinations, the last three weeks would likely provide a very fascinating study in real politics.

The Prime Minister did at least give his rivals a few excuses to say no—and there are surely domestic considerations at play here somewhere—but here there might be a good conversation to be had about how a government and Parliament should properly approach these matters. Beyond even determining the proper level of scrutiny, disclosure and cooperation, there is a school of thought—ably led by Philippe Lagasse—that the House shouldn’t be voting on deployments; that accountability is better served when the opposition parties are not at all responsible for sending our fellow citizens off to battle. In that way, we might be better off with a divided House.

But that still leaves the very real question of what we should be doing to defeat this newest threat. Two-thirds of the country seems to think it reasonable to be joining our allies in dropping some bombs in response. And whatever the non-military options that Canada might pursue, it is hard to imagine this being dealt with without bloodshed. Asked very directly about his support for airstrikes this afternoon, the NDP foreign affairs critic passed. “Not until I have all the information,” Paul Dewar pleaded.

If the opposition’s pleas for disclosure are ever met—either by their judgment or ours—there will be a new moment of decision for those parties.

Parliament will now be measured by how well it follows this country’s efforts.

We might be mindful that we can’t assume this will be the last time we face this sort of situation—not simply a question of war, but a question of confronting some even murkier menace. Even if our involvement in this fight is over in six months, there could be a new fight six months or a year or two years from then. And we will be faced again with a decision that involves the same and new questions. Will we handle it any differently? Should we?

We might hope to send our fellow citizens into danger and commit our nation to violence with some kind of unity. But we might also hope to do so only after a robust and thorough debate. We might’ve only gotten the latter (or maybe neither).

The real trick might be figuring out how to have both.