Thursday, October 2, 2014

Harper the Consultative

People seem to be concerned a  little bit that Stephen Harper is not making a quick decision about the next steps for involvement in the ISIL/ISIS/IS campaign.  True, this is out of character.  In the past several deployments, it seemed as if Harper made the decisions without any real homework being done:
  • the decision to send 900 troops to train Afghans from 2011-2014 was clearly made without much "inter-agency" discussions.  NATO did not ask for 900 trainers in Kabul, so Kabul became Kabul-centric, and Americans doing training in Kabul were directed to do other stuff.
  • the decision to send a plane to help the French move stuff to Mali seemed pretty hasty.  The idea that it would take a week and then had to be extended again and again suggested a very small circle of people were consulted (anybody in uniform?)
  • the decision to participate in the NATO reassurance efforts earlier this year. Announcements were made by the Canadian government, but then the planes ended up somewhere else--Romania.  Again, homework (vetting at home, working with NATO) seemed incomplete.
  • the decision to send 69 trainers to Iraq.  As it turns out, only 29 were sent as there was no need for more.  We only learned of this number in the past few days.
So, this time, Harper takes his time.  He consults his cabinet (the Chief of Defence Staff was actually in the room!), he consults with his caucus in parliament and still no decision.  All in all, I think this is a good thing--that this is being taken seriously.  The mission is pretty vague in terms of length and in terms of objectives.  Degrading ISIL can mean blowing up the equipment that it got when the Iraqi army broke, or it could mean more than that.  How much degrading is enough?  Destroying is not going to be happening via air power. 

The good news is that we do not really need an exit plan for this particular intervention.  Canada can just say--we have run out of bombs, our planes are too stressed, or something like that and fly away.  No need to worry about pulling personnel and equipment from a landlocked battlefield (pretty sure Canada still has containers in Afghanistan waiting to go home). 

Why is Harper taking his time?  First, to be clear, given the length of this campaign, Canada does not have to rush there.  Other countries are already there--six more CF-18s are not going to mean a big swing right now. For Libya, things were moving fast.  Second, and perhaps more importantly, Harper is trying to figure out what it means to have a war (a bombing campaign) during election season.  Hence the need to consult the caucus.  Third, this is going to cost money, challenging either the budget balancing promise OR other spending priorities.  My guess is that other parts of the military are going to be asked to suck it up.  But that will lead to more negative stories in the papers.*
* Harper is in sharp contrast to Cameron on this, since the UK did this far more quickly.  But the situations are not quite so similar.  UK has a better idea of the role of parliament in all of this, there is not an election on the horizon (I think), UK did Iraq before, Harper has a secure majority, etc.  But an interesting question.

Some people would have complained if Harper followed his standard procedure and sent planes before we figured out where they would land.  This time, people are complaining that he is working the process.  He may be doing it because of the election, but even so, with life/death type decisions, a little thinking, a little consulting is not a bad thing.

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