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Canada's political parties struggle with Iraq war plan

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Editor's note: Since the publication of this piece Justin Trudeau, leader of the Liberals, has indicated his party will vote with the NDP and oppose Harper's motion to expand Canada's military role in Iraq.

The politics of Canada's going to war are not simple.

The prospect of taking military action in Iraq and even Syria is problematic for all political parties.

Mainstream media commentators in English Canada say that it is a particular problem for NDP Leader Tom Mulcair.

His base, they say, does not want Canada to engage in any aggressive military action in the Middle East, but the majority of Canadians would be in favour of vigorusly participating in U.S. President Obama's new "coalition of the willing."

Obama, those commentators point out, is still way more popular in Canada than any Canadian politician. If this were a George W. Bush war, they admit, based on non-existent weapons of mass destruction, it would be a different story. The current fight, however, is with a very real, very scary, ruthless and extremely brutal armed group -- a group that seemed to appear out of nowhere.

The "regular" military forces in the region -- such as the Iraqi Army -- seem utterly incapable of containing the group that calls itself alternately the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) and the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS).

Whatever their correct name, ISIL/ISIS' ostentatious fanaticism has little to recommend it. Even other militarized Islamic groups, such as Al Quaeda, consider them to be extremists.

Still, while Canadians might be revolted by the spectacle of beheadings and sanguinary ethnic cleansings that make the atrocities that happened in the former Yugoslavia seem like child's play, they don't seem overly enthusiastic about risking blood and treasure in that troubled region.

New Democratic Members of Parliament, especially those in Quebec, are getting that message loud and clear, both from their so-called peace-loving base and from the larger electorate.

But MPs from other parties are getting similar feedback.

The Huffington Post's Althia Raj did some enterprising reporting and got Ontario Conservative MP Brad Butt to admit he had grave doubts about expanding Canada's military role. A number of Liberal MPs also said they were surprised at the degree of opposition to a direct military role they were hearing from constituents.

Shelly Glover is ready to support an increased military commitment 

Even at the Cabinet level there are obvious differences of view.

Canadian Heritage Minister, and Winnipeg area MP Shelly Glover was quite unequivocal when she spoke to reporters earlier this week.

"This is a huge threat, not only to the global nations, but to ourselves," she said. "So it's unfortunate, but we have to stand up to them."

But then when asked about support for military action among her constituents, Glover had to admit that there was still work to be done.

"My constituents are people that I have a lot of contact with on a regular basis," she told reporters on Wednesday, "And I intend to follow what it is that they would like to see me do, but that's a conversation for later."

"A conversation for later" -- which means Glover recognizes that, as it stands now, many in her Saint Boniface riding might not yet understand the need for Canada to send fighter jets and troops to the Middle East.  

"Later," after the Prime Minister makes his announcement committing Canada to direct military participation we'll have that "conversation," the purpose of which will be to build up the requisite degree of patriotic fervour.

Quebeckers not so easily given to military jingoism

For Harper's small Quebec contingency the very thought of a Canadian military engagement is more difficult. Flag waving and patriotic breast-beating have not, historically, worked nearly as well in Quebec as in the rest of Canada.

The Minister of Tourism and Small Business, and (many say) aspiring future Conservative leader Maxime Bernier was much more careful than his colleague from Manitoba when answering questions about the ISIL/ISIS crisis.

When asked, before Wednesday's Conservative caucus meeting, if he was "comfortable with a combat mission in Iraq," Bernier hedged his bets.

"It all depends on the conditions," the MP for the Beauce replied gingerly, "Everything rests on the mission, the details of the mission. That's what we're going to discuss."

Following the caucus meeting Bernier was a tiny bit less equivocal.

When reporters asked if he supported a "more muscular" role for Canada, Bernier, at first, answered: "Absolutely."

Then, however, the Quebec Conservative hastened to add that while it was "in the interests of Canada and the international community that Canada should be part of the coalition," we are "still discussing the exact nature of our role."

In the end, it is unlikely that  any Conservatives will buck their leader on this issue -- despite their doubts and those of their constituents.

Harper seems to have an almost visceral need to get involved in this fight in that "muscular" way. Militarism, after all, is part of his regime's brand, and it must be galling for the Conservative Prime Minister to see the one-time peace candidate, Obama, get ahead of him in this military enterprise.

Opposition parties will have a big decision to make

The Official Opposition NDP is preparing the ground to vote against expanding Canada's military role in the Middle East.

NDP Foreign Affairs critics Paul Dewar and Hélène Laverdière have both emphasized that there is a large and helpful role that Canada can play on the humanitarian side, and that we do no need to be dropping bombs to do our part.

The NDPers could also argue that it is hypocritical for the Conservatives to be so willing to see Canadians fight to stop violent forces in the Middle East when they are unwilling to support a modest effort to cut funding (through 'conflict minerals') to equally violent groups in sub-Saharan Africa.

As for NDP Leader Tom Mulcair, he warns that the current mission in Iraq and its region is not sanctioned by the U.N., and that the Prime Minister has yet to make the case for sending fighter jets, or for any other form of increased military action.

It is hard to imagine that there is anything Stephen Harper could say that might convince Mulcair and his colleagues to change their minds.

The Liberals, however, seem to be more on the fence.

They are critical of the lack of clarity and transparency -- so far -- from Prime Minister Harper.

Plus, former Liberal Prime Minister, Jean Chrétien, who resisted efforts to engage Canada in George W. Bush's Iraq war, has come close to saying he thinks Canada has made a mistake in getting militarily involved this time.

On the other hand, Liberals' concept of their "base" is different from that of New Democrats.

Justin Trudeau's party currently has very few seats to lose in francophone Quebec. If the Liberals are to do well in the next election, they will need strong support in English Canada, especially in suburban and small town Ontario.

Trudeau and his people might calculate that Harper's call to arms will be popular with just the sort of voters the Liberals have in their sights. They could very well decide -- notwithstanding the doubts of Chrétien and others, such as Bob Rae and The Globe and Mail editorial board -- that whatever the Prime Minister says on Friday will be adequate to earn their support.

Without meaning to trivialize a matter that is literally about life and death, one is reminded of an old song called "Father's Day" by comedian Groucho Marx.

Groucho's last line was: "According to our mother you're our father, and that's good enough for us!"

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