Bombing the Islamic State not in Canada's best interests

Note: This article was published in the Edmonton Journal on September 11, 2015.

In the run-up to October’s federal election, the central foreign policy issue is Canada’s participation in the bombing campaign against the Islamic State. While considering this question, I was reminded of Oscar Wilde’s attitude toward charity in 19th-century Britain, which provides a strikingly useful analogy. He wrote that charity “is not a solution: it is an aggravation of the difficulty. The proper aim is to try and reconstruct society on such a basis that poverty will be impossible.” Just as token acts of charity do nothing to solve the underlying causes of poverty, Canada’s role in the bombing campaign is similarly counterproductive for opposing extremism.

Canada is one of seven countries actively bombing IS targets in Iraq, and now one of six in Syria — an endeavour that happens to be sharp at both ends considering that by fighting IS there we are indirectly supporting the brutal Syrian government’s hope of remaining in power.

Over the last several months, however, the U.S. has conducted the overwhelming majority of military operations, rendering every other coalition member’s individual contribution insignificant by comparison. For instance, as of Aug. 23, the six CF-18 Hornet jets Canada sent to the region had conducted 891 sorties. Those numbers are dwarfed by the American military, which by itself had conducted 946 air strikes in Syria alone as of early February. As these numbers show, from a material standpoint Canada’s part in the bombing campaign is by no means indispensable; our reasons for being there are almost entirely political. Sentimentality is a bad reason for going to war.

It is clear that there is no acceptable military solution for defeating IS, especially since the majority of American voters have no appetite for embarking on another foolhardy ground invasion. Half of IS fighters are foreign recruits, many of whom have left western countries to fight on behalf of the self-proclaimed caliphate. For Muslims who view the West as anti-Islam crusaders, every bomb that Canada drops fuels that belief further, thereby jeopardizing our position in the battle of ideas.

Consider that from the video he recorded in the moments before he launched his assault on Parliament Hill last October, we know that Michael Zihaf-Bibeau believed his actions were justified as retaliation for Canada’s role in “creating a lot of terror in (Afghanistan and Iraq) and killing us and killing our innocents.” His motivation was hardly unique in its character: many extremists, including Osama bin Laden, have pointed to similar grounds for their actions. While no real or perceived grievance could ever justify terrorism, motivating factors like these can explain why people resort to violence. We would be both foolish and callous not to take them seriously.

Some will say that disengaging from the military effort now would represent a capitulation to terrorists’ demands. Some others will even say naively that fighting fire with fire is the only option because terrorists simply “hate us for our freedom,” as if such a statement carries any real meaning.

A basic examination of recent history tells us that that sort of dogmatic thinking bears no fruit. Even the British government eventually acknowledged the need to address the grievances of the Northern Irish people in order to end IRA terrorism during the 1990s. As with that struggle, now is the time for innovation, not stubbornness. Only a small minority of extremists are motivated primarily by theological fundamentalism. Most are driven first and foremost by a desire to avenge injustices through violent retaliation. That is good news, because it means that the problem of terrorism has, in principle, a simple solution. One need not be an apologist for terrorism to acknowledge the legitimacy of a perpetrator’s grievances. If we ever hope to combat terrorism effectively, we as voters must understand this critical distinction, and should elect a government that reflects the same wisdom by taking sociology seriously.

Islamic extremism has long been attacked primarily from a military angle, but with predictably poor results. The battle for hearts and minds is the arena where this conflict was always going to be won because success ultimately depends on preventing those with grievances from feeling that violence is the only possible avenue for achieving justice.

As a bit-part player in the bombing campaign against ISIS, the money and effort we expend on direct military action amounts to only a marginal contribution to a futile strategy. Our energy and money could instead be spent more effectively on an enhanced humanitarian mission that addresses root causes of terrorism. It is important that we explore new and more empathic strategies because, as Wilde put it so eloquently, “it is much more easy to have sympathy with suffering than it is to have sympathy with thought.”