Prime Minister Trudeau’s absolutely incoherent statement on Canada’s fight with ISIS

On Wednesday, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau attended a town-hall-style interview organized by Maclean’s Magazine. It was the first extensive, wide-ranging interview Trudeau has given since the election campaign ended, and as such was an opportunity for the media and the public to press him on the specifics of his government’s many ongoing projects and proposals.

Details haven’t been Trudeau’s strong suit, either on the campaign trail or since he took power. This is obviously more true of some subjects than others, but on a wide range of issues, from the “fixing” of C-51 to the timing and specifics of marijuana legalization to the government’s thoughts on and plans for electoral reform, what the public has been told so far essentially adds up to “Just wait and see”.

And on no topic has this vagueness been more pervasive than the issue of Canada’s fight with ISIS.

Trudeau and his Foreign Affairs Minister, Stephane Dion, insist that the Liberals’ campaign promise to withdraw Canada’s fighter jets from the conflict still stands, but two months after election day, those same fighter jets are still dropping bombs on Iraq and Syria, and no date has been provided for their mission’s conclusion. Meanwhile, aside from vague statements from the Prime Minister that Canada would bolster its contingent of military trainers, we haven’t heard any concrete details about what the shape of Canada’s military mission will be, what its objective are, how long it will last, where it will operate, or how it hopes to accomplish its goals.

Nor have we heard from Trudeau, during the election or afterwards, a coherent statement as to why he feels that Canada ought to end its bombing mission while strengthening its training mission. No doubt there is a case to be made for this particular course of action, but it’s not a case that Justin Trudeau or his ministers have ever made publicly.

So it was only a matter of time before the subject came up during Trudeau’s town hall. Up to that point, I thought that Trudeau had done a fine job of answering questions in detail – which isn’t to say that I agreed with his positions, merely that he was getting into the nitty-gritty of policy in a way I hadn’t seen him do during the campaign or since he took power. But as soon as the subject pivoted away from domestic policy into foreign affairs, he suddenly seemed like a first-year poli-sci student who skipped the readings and is trying to bullshit his way through a question from the prof that he doesn’t have a damn clue how to answer properly.

I’ve quoted the entire exchange in full here, although Maclean’s edited the plethora of “uh”s and “um”s out of Trudeau’s statements; if you’d like to watch the exchange, it begins at roughly 19:00 here.

[CYNTHIA] MULLIGAN[, CITY NEWS]: Prime Minister, we had a lot of questions on social media, and one of the dominant theme concerned Syria. It was asked right across the country, and here’s a question from a City News viewer in Toronto. His name is Wayne. He asks: please help me understand why you are taking the CF-18 fighter jets out of the war on ISIS? So far, all I have heard is what you are going to do, but I would like to understand why?

TRUDEAU: That’s a, that’s a great question. Thank you, Wayne, for the question.

The fact is everyone understands that the so-called Islamic state are terrorists who want to destabilize the region, you know, kill anyone who disagrees with them, and pose real threats to the western world specifically. Canada has an important responsibility, as part of the coalition, to fight against the Islamic state militants and to establish a level of peace and security in that region.

What people understand well is there is no purely military solution. You cannot defeat ISIS by military means alone. We need a broad way of engaging. And that, that means humanitarian support, it means supporting on refugees, as we have started to do significantly. But it also does include military engagement, there’s no question about it. And the question that we have to ask as a government and as a country, is how best can we help?

There’s no question that the men and women of the Canadian Forces are extraordinarily skilled and brave and able to do whatever mission we send them in on, as they are doing right now in air strikes. But the question becomes are airstrikes, is a combat role the best way for Canada to actually help?

Now for 10 years, we spent an awful lot of time gaining hard fought experience in Afghanistan about training up local troops to be able to bring the fight directly to terrorists in their communities, in their, in their towns. And we know that western armies engaged in combat is not necessarily the way to solve challenges in the Middle East.

So what we’re doing right now is we’re working with our allies, with coalition partners to look at how best Canada can continue to help militarily in substantive ways that offer real help in a way that is specifically lined up with our capacities as Canadians. We do some things better than just about anyone else in the world, and looking at our capacity to do that in smarter ways is exactly what Canadians asked me to do in the last election campaign.

There’s a lot of double-speak in there, and the whole thing is pretty rambling, so let’s break Trudeau’s argument down step by step so we can get a better idea of what he’s actually saying.

First off, he posits that ISIS are brutal terrorists, are a destabilizing force in the Middle East, and pose a threat to Western nations, and asserts that Canada has a responsibility to fight them and to work for “a level of peace and security” in the Middle East. OK. So far so good – I don’t agree with all of it, but he’s got a coherent argument going.

He then immediately begins to backtrack, saying that there is no “purely” military solution to the problem of ISIS. Humanitarian support, including support for refugees, is also important. Here he probably notes that he’s strayed quite a bit from the question, because he swerves back, reiterating the need for military engagement. So far, he’s posited two ways to deal with the whole ISIS mess: military intervention and humanitarian support. Now he poses the question: how can Canada best help to defeat ISIS? The implication seems to be that we can either fight them or we can help their victims.

But if you were expecting an answer to this rhetorical question, you’re gonna have to wait.

Trudeau doesn’t want to piss off the army, so before he goes any further, he has to hedge himself, asserting that Our Brave Troops are capable of doing anything we order them to, being so skilled and so brave and so etc., and that they’re doing a heckuva job at the moment with their bombing mission. Having placated the generals, he now rephrases the question that was initially put to him: are airstrikes the best way for Canada to fight ISIS? (This right after claiming that Our Brave Troops are performing their raining-death-from-the-sky duties impeccably.)

This posing of the question is as close as Trudeau comes to answering it; immediately he dives off on a strange tangent about Afghanistan, how we trained local troops to fight terrorists there, and also how Western armies engaged in combat doesn’t solve problem in the Middle East. Both of these statements are true – Canada engaged in an entirely ineffectual training and combat mission in Afghanistan, which continues to verge on collapsed-state status fourteen years after Western nations first invaded. But I somehow suspect he wasn’t trying to make the point that training missions are ineffective, seeing as that’s what he’s advocating here. He also seems to imply (but can’t possibly be actually implying!) that the whole premise of the coalition’s intervention against ISIS is flawed, given the fact that Western intervention in Middle Eastern nations doesn’t have a great track record.

Trudeau wraps up this meandering train wreck of an answer by insisting that Canada will help “militarily” and “in substantive ways”, but in ways that are “lined up with our capacities as Canadians”, doing things that we do “better than just about anyone in the world”, without ever mentioning what those things are, our why we as Canadians have the capacity to do those things so well. He finally and limply concludes by boasting about the intelligence of his policy proposals.

You may have noticed that he never did get around to responding to Wayne’s question. Why aren’t airstrikes an appropriate way to help? Why is training more in sync with our capacities? Why not do both? Why not do neither? Trudeau doesn’t seem to care; maybe he doesn’t even have a reason.

The most striking thing about this statement, however, is not the fact that it refuses to answer the question; it’s that it’s hard to imagine any question that it could possibly be the answer to. It’s a torrent of essentially meaningless words. Trudeau at times seems to be making the case for military combat against ISIS, and at time seems to be advocating total withdrawal from the conflict. Swerving wildly between these two positions, he comes to a careening halt roughly halfway between them, and seems pleased with himself that he’s found some kind of middle ground.

Many times prior to and during the election campaign, I got the impression from Justin Trudeau that he had settled on policy positions mostly or entirely because they represented a kind of compromise between the positions of the Conservatives and the NDP. On Bill C-51, for instance, he took the incomprehensible and tortured stance that the law was deeply and dangerously flawed, but that he was going to support it, but that he was going to fix it later, once he got elected. A position like this is only explainable as an attempt to claim the middle ground, no matter how mind-numbingly incomprehensible that middle ground position may be.

The Liberals’ plan for Canada’s fight against ISIS is of a piece with their plan for C-51. Where the Conservatives would have continued the mission and the NDP would have ended it, with the Liberals, we get a little bit of both! As a pandering play for swing voters, the strategy may have been a success, but we’ll see how it survives its encounter with the real world. Not twenty-four hours after Trudeau’s town hall, news broke that Canada’s special forces “trainers” had been caught up in a day-long large-scale gun battle with ISIS in Iraq which involved air support from Canada’s CF-18 fighter jets. So much for the rhetorical division between combat and training.

I’ve been essentially forced to accept this “compromise-for-the-sake-of-compromise” explanation for Trudeau’s stance because it’s the only reasonable explanation I can come up with. I certainly haven’t heard a better explanation from Trudeau, who despite many many opportunities has yet to explain the rationale behind his plan.

For me, that’s the most disturbing part of this incoherent nothing-burger of a statement. I don’t agree with his policy, and that’s fine, but I find it disconcerting that he’s completely unable to articulate why it’s his policy. The possibility that he adopted this position purely for the sake of short-term political gain is strikingly reminiscent of the approach of the gone-but-not-forgotten Harper Conservatives. I guess when they promised Real Change, they weren’t referring to the inherently cynical and Machiavellian prioritization of politics over all else that their predecessors practiced.


Fallacy Friday is a weekly discussion of logical inconsistencies, definitional ambiguities, nonsensical arguments, and other unreasonableness in news coverage. You can reach me at matt@thealfalfafield.com or leave a comment below.

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