Fallacy Friday: The NDP on Iraq, Syria, and the use of the Canadian military

This past week, Peter Mansbridge and the CBC news team decided to sit down in bizarre nature-esque locations across Canada to have frank unscripted one-on-one discussions with the intensely focus-group-prepped leaders of the three major parties.

Though nothing much of substance was said – especially in terms of things we haven’t heard before – the interviews at least served the function of drawing attention to a few things.

First of all, Mansbridge is a softie at giving interviews. When the leaders rattled off talking points that were often only tangentially related to his questions, he rarely pushed back, and when he did – like when he tried sooooo hard to get Mulcair to say “50 percent plus one” when he was inexplicably grilling him over the Clarity Act – it was on matters that didn’t really matter. A lot of Mansbridge’s questions were slo-pitched softballs – “Why do you want to be Prime Minister?” – and his infrequent attempts to be tough seemed pretty random. For instance, he didn’t raise the issue of Harper’s being an asshole and a tyrant when he was talking to the Prime Minister, but when interviewing Mulcair, he busted out some super-critical quotes from former NDP MP Bruce Hyer (now a Green) who said that Mulcair would be just as much of an asshole and a tyrant as Harper ever was, and what do you have to say about that, Mr Mulcair? He reminded me of Bob Cole during the sportscaster’s final years as the HNIC play-by-play guy – obviously past his best-before date, but still in there mumbling away because nobody had the heart to tell him he’d lost it and it was time to give somebody else a turn mangling Quebecois players’ names.

Uneven, unbalanced, and most damning of all, uninteresting, the CBC’s leader interviews are destined to go down in history as having practically no impact on anything ever. (Their final sit-down, with Elizabeth May, airs tonight. Look for a lot of patronizing condescension and non-sequiturs.)

The only other thing of note about them – and the only reason I bring them up – was the fact that, for one extra news cycle, folks were talking about the NDP’s position on our Glorious Non-Combat Operation in Iraq and Syria.

In case you haven’t heard, Mulcair & Co. favour an immediate and total withdrawal of all of our troops from Iraq and Syria, including the troops training Kurdish peshmerga forces. Here’s the relevant quotes from the interview; if you want to suffer through the whole thing, you can watch it here, with the ISIS discussion starting at about 25:30:

MANSBRIDGE: A COUPLE OF OTHER AREAS THAT I WANT TO GO THROUGH QUICKLY. UM, THE FIGHT AGAINST ISIS, DOES IT CHANGE DRAMATICALLY AND IMMEDIATELY IF THE NDP TAKES POWER?

MULCAIR: Well we’ve said clearly, and that’s very much on the public record, that we will immediately stop the bombing mission and bring those troops home. And we’ll bring home the troops that are involved there as we saw on the frontline when we lost one of our fighters. We know that they’ve been on the front line and contrary to what had been promised –

MANSBRIDGE: (OVERLAP) SO ALL CANADIAN FORCES THERE INCLUDING THOSE ON TRAINING MISSIONS WOULD BE BROUGHT HOME?

MULCAIR: We will immediately withdraw our troops from Iraq and to the extent that they are doing some bombing in Syria and from Syria.

MANSBRIDGE: SO WE ARE OUT OF THE FIGHT WITH ISIS IF THE NDP WIN.  OR IN THE DAYS IMMEDIATELY  DEPENDING ON WHAT THE SITUATION IS?

MULCAIR: Yes. Yes, no question about that.

MANSBRIDGE: YOU’RE COMFORTABLE WITH THAT POSITION.

MULCAIR: I’m profoundly in favour of that position.

MANSBRIDGE: DOES ISIS POSE A THREAT TO CANADA AND CANADIANS?

MULCAIR: Peter, I know what poses a threat to Canada and Canadians, it’s continued war in a region that’s known almost nothing but for 35 years, going back to the Iran­-Iraq war shortly after that revolution. We went through Desert Storm and the first Gulf War and then we went through, which was supposedly mission accomplished by getting rid of Saddam Hussein. And everything has flowed from that, all the horrors ­ and I’m not trying to understate them that we’re seeing flow from that. So I think that the best thing for Canada to do is to start playing a positive role for peace and that’s – that would be a top priority for me as the prime minister of Canada.

Mulcair was quite right that this is a very public position of the NDP – it’s been their position since the beginning of our military involvement in Iraq and Syria – so I’m not sure why the press treated this as news, but they did, and the next day they pressed him for follow-up on this question:

Before I get into breaking down my trepidation surrounding this, let me just make clear: This is the first time in the whole damn election that I’ve completely agreed with what Mulcair has proposed. I think he’s absolutely right that the vicious unending cycle of war in this region needs to be broken, that our presence there isn’t accomplishing anything, and that we ought to pull every last troop and warplane out of there immediately. I can only hope that the NDP follow through on this promise if they’re elected.

But I can’t just take them at their word, unfortunately.

Let’s take a look at a few quotes from Mulcair’s follow-up responses to the press on Thursday:

Q: What about the Ukraine, sir? What about the training operation in Ukraine?

Mulcair: Completely different situation – I think that the training mission in Ukraine could and should be able to continue.

Q: And how do you explain pulling out of our mandate – Canada’s mandate – how do you explain that to our allies? Pulling out early before the end of the mandate?

Mulcair: This is not a NATO mission. This is not a UN mission. Multilateralism has always been part of the Canadian approach. But this is neither a UN nor a NATO mission. This is an American-led mission. Canada is free. We have our own foreign policy. We’ll have an independent foreign policy under an NDP government and we will put an end to Canada’s participation in the combat mission in Iraq and in Syria. We’re serious about that and we’ve been consistent on it and that’s what we’ve said since day one.

There’s quite a bit to unpack here.

First of all, Mulcair doesn’t offer any justification for pulling out troops out of Iraq and Syria but not Ukraine. Though he asserts that it’s a completely different situation, there are many striking similarities between the two. Like for instance, our troops are – officially, at least – mostly there in a training and advisory role. And as even Peter Mansbridge acknowledged in his sit-down with Justin Trudeau, these kinds of training missions just don’t work. The West has been trying to train “the good guys” in various conflicts for well over a decade now, from Afghanistan to Iraq to Syria, and there hasn’t been a single case of it not blowing up in our faces eventually.

And from what we know about the folks we’re training in Ukraine, it’s easy to see exactly where this mission is leading. As I wrote back in June, there’s widespread and mainstream concern that this US-led training mission in Ukraine is going to arm and train known neo-Nazi militias. And when I call them neo-Nazis, I’m not speculating. I mean they’re doing things like openly wearing swastikas and praising Hitler. (For more coverage from The Alfalfafield on the situation in Ukraine, see here.) The government has tried to insist that any troops we trained are going to be thoroughly vetted (by Ukraine’s government), but the point is that this is an unstable factional conflict with some pretty extreme radicals on the same side that we’re arming and training, and in the long run that has the potential to end very poorly.

Now, this is in many ways the same concern that Mulcair has expressed about our involvement in the fight against ISIS. He’s called it a war with “no plan and no long-term strategy”, criticized its dubious legal basis, and said that the situation was so complex that Canada could be inadvertently dragged into a lengthy conflict that we want no part of. All of these criticisms apply equally to our training of Ukrainian militias.

In failing to explain why he makes the distinction between the fight against ISIS (he’s said it’s “not Canada’s war to fight”) and the fight against Ukrainian/Russian separatists (NDP MP Peggy Nash says “we cannot ever accept the loss of Crimea or the loss of the territories in the east”), Mulcair is giving the public mixed signals about how the NDP would use the Canadian military if they win power. What wars are “our wars to fight”? What criteria is he using to assess whether we should get militarily involved in a situation?

One thing he made quite clear in his remarks is that in cases where the UN or NATO provide a mandate for invasion, he would think differently. This was the case, for instance, back in 2011, when the NDP was whole-heartedly in favour of the NATO-led bombing of Libya.

The Libyan mission also bears striking similarities to the current aerial bombardment of Iraq and Syria. Canada and its allies were providing air cover on behalf of an ill-defined coalition of rebels (about whom we didn’t know very much, at least officially) in their struggle against a corrupt dictator. The rebels’ eventual triumph and NATO’s withdrawal from the North African nation was only the beginning of a twisted saga of death and destruction in Libya which continues to this day. The outflow of weapons from the conflict led to a coup in Mali; many munitions also made their way east into Syria, exacerbating the conflict in which we find ourselves entangled today. Meanwhile, the human rights situation in Libya is dire, and thousands are fleeing the country, adding to the burgeoning numbers of refugees making dangerous crossing of the Mediterranean.

Here’s what Mulcair had to say about our bombardment of Iraq and Syria when Parliament voted on extending the mission:

The fact is, airstrikes will not work. You can’t bomb ISIL and its ideology into oblivion. It doesn’t work. Worse still, it could backfire.

Squaring that (entirely agreeable!) sentiment with the NDP’s strong and enthusiastic support for NATO’s bombing of Libya is, well, impossible.

In fact, squaring that sentiment with the NDP’s support for NATO is pretty damn impossible, given that these “humanitarian” air wars of “liberal intervention” are mostly what NATO does these days. Although historically the NDP favoured Canadian withdrawal from NATO (an issue which may have cost Ed Broadbent the 1988 election), the party has long since adopted a “stronger” military policy (see this damning two-part summary going all the way back to Yugoslavia), and in terms of NATO-involved conflicts, NDP approval has been universal.

So what happens if NATO decides to get involved in the Syrian conflict a year or so down the road? Does the Canadian military re-engage with the conflict? This may not be a fanciful hypothetical situation – as Russia ramps up its involvement in the festering civil war, NATO officials are sounding increasingly bellicose.

Or recall 2013, when NATO was on the brink of invading a pre-ISIS Syria after (dubious) evidence emerged that the Assad regime had used chemical weapons on its own people.

The fact is, we can’t trust the NDP to stay committed to this promise, not given their history of largely uncritical support for almost all of Canada’s military interventions.

Let’s be real. It’s truly refreshing to see a major party – a party leading the polls – campaigning explicitly and aggressively on ending a war of aggression, a war which is, like most wars, a racket. Whatever Mulcair’s motives for taking and maintaining this strong position – and I suspect it has a lot more to do with electoral politics than it does with principles – I applaud his stance and I hope that Canada does indeed pull its troops out of Iraq and Syria this fall.

But given the NDP’s history on this issue, I have a funny feeling that it won’t be that uncomplicated.

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