Dear Mr. Trudeau, about Syria . . .

Your party pioneered the notion of ’responsibility to protect’. Ending the air war against Islamic State would violate it.

Dear Mr. Trudeau,

Telling a politician he should break a promise is generally a hard case to make. But hear me out.

You have pledged to end Canada’s involvement in an air war against the so-called Islamic State, a band of genocidal thugs, slavers and rapists who have taken over large parts of Iraq and Syria.

A couple of days after you voted against a motion to support Canadian air strikes on the group last October, I was in Iraq, where every single person I asked—Iraqis, and also Syrian refugees sheltering there—said they wanted Canada to bomb Islamic State.

You, as far as I know, have never been to Iraq. Hearing first-hand about the cruelty, sexual violence and mass murder unleashed by Islamic State might have caused you to think differently about combating them.

(Or perhaps not. Last year, Marc Garneau, then your foreign affairs critic, made a very brief visit to the country with then-foreign affairs minister John Baird and then-NDP foreign affairs critic Paul Dewar, and returned thinking Canada dropping bombs on Islamic State throat-slitters was “overkill.”)

Your arguments that day in the House, and in the run-up to the vote, were vague and convoluted. Much of your reasoning had less to do with the mission itself than with how it had been presented by Stephen Harper’s Conservative government.

“The Prime Minister has not justified these air strikes,” you told reporters at the time.

Speaking in the House, you said: “The Prime Minister has not been upfront with Canadians about his plans. The Prime Minister and his government have given us no reason to believe that, once in combat, they will be able to limit our role.”

The Conservative government, without question, tried to use foreign policy as a wedge issue. You were excluded from a Canadian parliamentary delegation to Ukraine following that country’s revolution against a pro-Russian government last year. That was churlish and cynical.

But I don’t believe the Conservatives acted the same way during the early days of the air campaign against Islamic State. It seemed they genuinely wanted broad parliamentary support behind the mission. How else to explain the invitation to accompany Baird to Iraq that was extended to Garneau and Dewar?

Your accusations of a lack of transparency from the government regarding the mission proved better founded. The Conservatives’ definition of a non-combat role for soldiers on the ground was elastic, and they stretched it.

But none of this—the case the Conservatives made for war, and their transparency about it—matters any more. You will soon be prime minister, and can judge the worth of the air campaign against Islamic State on its own merits, rather than on how it has been presented by a government you oppose.

Let us first tackle the question of whether the air strikes are useful in the campaign against Islamic State. The evidence suggests they are.

Since Islamic State began its lightning advance through northern Iraq in June 2014, air strikes have likely saved Iraqi Kurdistan from being overrun by Islamic State, an outcome that would have resulted in mass slaughter. They helped lift the siege of Kobani in northern Syria, preserving countless civilian lives. And they saved thousands of Yezidis trapped on Mount Sinjar from death and slavery. (Thousands more were murdered and enslaved anyway.)

I would be the first to acknowledge air strikes alone are not enough. But to say they accomplish little good is simply not true.

This leaves us with a second line of argument, one encapsulated by Garneau’s “overkill” line, but also by a quip you made questioning the value of deploying Canada’s “handful of aging warplanes” to the mission. This argument essentially suggests that what Canada can contribute is so small, and what America is already doing is so big, that we shouldn’t bother.

I don’t want to be too presumptuous, but you and I are roughly the same age, so I’m going to guess you’ve watched The Simpsons. You may be familiar with the “Trash of the Titans” episode, in which Homer decides to run for the office of sanitation commissioner under the slogan “Can’t someone else do it?” Your approach to fighting Islamic State isn’t much different.

It’s a shame, because reasons for confronting Islamic State with force are decidedly Liberal. Your party pioneered the notion of “responsibility to protect.” The many, many victims of Islamic State deserve protection—from sexual slavery, homophobic slaughter, sectarian mass murder, and genocide. The Yezidis, a tiny and ancient religious minority, face genocide if they fall under Islamic State’s control. Too many have already perished.

This is why stalwarts of your own Liberal party—men with far more experience than you, such as Bob Rae, Lloyd Axworthy and Irwin Cotler—have spoken out in favour of a combat mission as part of Canada’s response to Islamic State’s barbarism.

This is why the coalition of countries involved in the combat mission includes almost all our closest friends: America, Britain, Australia, France. The United States has already publicly expressed its wish that Canada not abandon the mission, and that hope is not unique among our allies.

You’re going to break a lot of promises over the next four years. That’s not meant as a slur. All politicians promise more than they genuinely think they can deliver, and think they can deliver more than they do. You can deliver on this promise. But it would be the wrong thing to do. Break it. Principled Canadians, to say nothing of Iraqis and Syrians, will thank you for it.


Michael Petrou