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Canadian foreign policy: A case for Mideast disengagement

Michael Bliss is a historian, author and professor emeritus, University of Toronto.


The main problem with the new federal government's cautious, hesitant military engagement in the Middle East is that it isn't cautious and hesitant enough.

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All the knowledge we are accumulating about the West's recent interventions in that region suggests that we do not have adequate knowledge to support any forceful Canadian role. We are blundering around in the dark, possibly doing significantly more harm than good, and might best do nothing.

In warfare from 2002 to 2011, we sacrificed 158 Canadian lives, and many more Afghan lives, trying to change Afghanistan. We now know that we failed. Our campaign there was a waste of lives and resources. Knowing what we now know about that country, we would never have sent Canadian troops there, and we will not do it again.

In 2011, we were major participants in the bombing of Libya, and we were initially very proud of our success in the overthrow of the dictator, Moammar Gadhafi. We now know that Canada played a significant role in bringing continuing anarchy, chaos, misery, migration and death to the people of Libya, an utterly shameful outcome for which no Canadian has been held to account.

To the great credit of the Jean Chrétien government – and no credit at all to the Conservative opposition at the time – Canada avoided playing a military role in a terrible catastrophe, the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq that overthrew Saddam Hussein and unleashed an era of so-far-uncontainable chaos, bloodshed, death and misery.

Then Canada decided to re-engage. Since 2015 we have been involved militarily in Iraq and Syria, bombing cities and towns, supplying arms and advice to militias, putting Canadians on the front lines of far-off battlefields among peoples of whom neither our military, our government, nor our people have any practical knowledge.

Like its Western allies, especially the United States, Canada is groping around in impossibly confused situations in the Middle East, and it will be many years before we have any clear knowledge of the consequences of our actions. We have no credible feedback about how many civilian deaths, injuries and dislocations we are causing as collateral damage.

As with the Iraqi and Libyan campaigns, as with other Western military adventures going all the way back to interventions in Russia after the Bolshevik revolution, we have no idea whether efforts to fight evil might spawn worse evil. The Canadian government has far less knowledge about the Middle East than even our partners in Washington and Brussels possess (in the golden age of Pearsonian foreign policy, our diplomatic corps worked hard to gather independent intelligence, a capacity it seems to have lost). Our media coverage of the wars of our times is banal and pathetically inadequate.

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The main lesson I draw from a lifetime's study of history is of how little true knowledge peoples and governments have when they make public policy. We grope around in the dark, our vaunted "expertise" amounting to flickers of dim candlelight. Occasionally we are lucky and do the right thing, often for the wrong reasons. The Second World War was probably a case in point. The First World War, on the other hand, was probably a stupendous waste of lives, including those of 60,000 Canadians.

The implication of this line of argument is that Canada should be predisposed to limit its involvement in most of the world's trouble spots to non-violent and unambiguously humanitarian help. This would amount to a neo-isolationist foreign policy for Canada, and would be problematic in some respects (we would have to have the courage, for example, to speak caution to the warmongers in Washington).

Still, the evidence so far suggests that we in Canada, the United States, and Europe, do not understand the world well enough to sacrifice the lives of our young men and women, and the lives of countless other men, women, and children, in so-called "missions" into the black vortex of fighting, destruction, and death.

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