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Going to war in Iraq to defend a legacy of utter failure

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Prime Minister Harper used few words on Friday afternoon to justify Canada taking a combat role in Iraq, and, possibly, Syria.

The nub of his appeal to Canadian public opinion was:

"This intervention is necessary to ensure regional and global security ... The evidence of the necessity of this is none better than the fact that the mission has been launched by President Obama, the leader who had withdrawn American troops and proudly ended the war in Iraq."

There you have it.

If the U.S. "President of Peace" says this war is necessary, it must be necessary.

Then, almost as the Canadian Prime Minister was speaking, ISIL fighters seemed to be trying to confirm the validity of his argument. They brutally murdered a decent, well-meaning -- and utterly innocent -- British taxi driver and aid worker.

The Islamic State fanatics used their now-usual method: beheading, filmed by cell-phone and publicized widely and ghoulishly on social media.

One shudders at the frightful uses to which digital technology can be put.

Opposition not moved

And yet, despite such horrors, the opposition is not buying Harper's case for sending in our (aging) CF-18s or in any other way engaging in active military combat.

Official Opposition and NDP Leader Tom Mulcair pointed out that -- like the mission now proposed by the Prime Minister -- the Afghanistan adventure started out as a small and limited exercise, with only a few dozen soldiers. It then grew and grew, until it became Canada's longest-running military engagement, longer than either world war.

Of Canada's current military role in the Middle East, which Harper now proposes be significantly expanded, Mulcair said:

"Now that Canadian troops are committed, Conservatives are telling us the mission will be expanded to air strikes, refuelling capabilities, and aerial surveillance, and now the Prime Minister is specifically opening the door to bombing in Syria. We have gone from mission creep to mission leap."

Both Mulcair and Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau referred to the fact that the root cause of the current chaos and violence in Iraq was the ill-conceived U.S.-led attack, 11 years ago, on Saddam Hussein's stable, if brutal and ugly regime in Iraq.

Trudeau put it this way:

"The 2003 Iraq war was waged on false pretenses and flawed intelligence. It was a mission that destabilized the region, sowed further conflict, cost our allies around three trillion dollars, and cost thousands of people their lives."

You broke it; you own it

The sub-text for the opposition parties is that it was the Americans and their allies who broke Iraq and so now they own it. They must now assume the greatest risks in doing whatever is necessary to fix it.

As the junior Senator from Illinois, Barack Obama may have voted against George W. Bush's Iraq war -- no matter. Today, Obama is the President, and, as such, is responsible for the consequences of all his predecessors' decisions -- however wrong-headed those decisions may have been.

In the aftermath of Harper's announcement on Friday, the Canadian media have been full of analysis and exegesis.

Robert Fowler, a former diplomat and Deputy Minister of Defence, and, more recently, kidnap victim in Niger, argues at one and the same time that we in the West should get out of  the Middle East and North Africa region and let the "Muslims" sort it out for themselves, and that the United States and its allies should take much more aggressive and robust measures (including, if necessary, ground troops) to defeat the Islamic State, and create space for more reasonable forces.

It seems as though Fowler is disagreeing with himself. But there is some coherence to his position, which he argues with considerable passion.

We should not make it our aim to permanently set up camp in Iraq or elsewhere in the region, says Fowler. But if the United States and its allies want a plan with an exit strategy, their immediate response to ISIL must be much more robust than air strikes and supplying munitions to friendly forces, such as the Kurdish peshmerga.

Better to leave now, Fowler argues, than pursue our current "flabby" strategy.

A war that makes many strange bedfellows

Others -- including the British small-c conservative journal The Economist -- point out that the United States' allies in the current adventure include some strange bedfellows.

Chief among those is Saudi Arabia, which has a penchant for execution by beheading that equals if it does not exceed that of the Islamic State. The Saudis have been carrying out beheadings at a record rate of late -- and not for capital crimes, such as murder.

The Kingdom executes people for drug-dealing, blasphemy, "sorcery" and even "receiving drugs." Amnesty International reports that a great many Saudi executions take place after summary trials in which the accused are inculpated on the basis of confessions extracted by torture.

Another strange bedfellow in this war is Iran, where the Shiite regime detests the radical Sunni Islamic State.

This writer heard one Canadian supporter of Harper's initiative loudly declaim that he hoped the current conflict would awaken the West to the fact that sooner or later "we" will have to seriously consider invading Iran, in order to disarm it before it develops nuclear weapons.

As for so many of us, the complex nature of the multiple political and religious conflicts in the region utterly escaped this Harper policy supporter. He seemed unaware of the fact that Iran is, in the current anti-ISIL struggle, an important, if tacit, ally of the U.S.-led coalition.

And talking about strange bedfellows: on Friday, Prime Minister Harper had to openly admit that Canada might consider expending blood and treasure in Syria if invited by -- wait for it -- the bloody and brutal regime of Bashar al-Assad.

The Prime Minister tried to explain that Alice-through-the-looking-glass idea with these opaque words: "The Government of Canada will not hide its disgust at the actions of the Assad regime. What we are doing is taking part in an anti-terrorist operation against ISIL and its allies. We do not want to wage war on any government in the region."

Efforts at post-Saddam 'nation-building' were a failure

The unavoidable truth is that the current anarchy in and emanating from Iraq shows how it is much easier to remove a regime through military force than to achieve meaningful, democratic, stable regime change.

Even though Canada was not involved in the fighting in George W. Bush's Iraq War, there were Canadians involved in the subsequent efforts at "nation building." To all appearances, those efforts have proved themselves to be an utter failure.

One of the particular Canadian areas of expertise was federalism -- the use of political architecture to achieve autonomy for diverse groups and regions within a united country.

The relatively small Canadian efforts in this area were sincere, and might have been more successful had others such as the Americans, the British and other Arab states been more interested in the idea.

The most pro-western people in Iraq -- the Kurds -- were the most interested in a federal arrangement. In the original construction of the post-Saddam Iraqi State the Kurds managed to get themselves an autonomous region, which is now the base of operations against ISIL.

But the prospect of decentralized governance, with power and wealth shared and diffused widely, did not seem to have greater resonance in post-Saddam Iraq.

Those who wanted to hitchhike to power in Baghdad on the wings of the U.S and its allies' victory tended to view federalism with great suspicion. They believed a federal arrangement would become a short-cut to the dismemberment of the country. And they had sympathetic ears among the Americans and their British friends.

Indeed the Americans seemed mostly focused on the need to establish a strong, compliant and friendly Iraqi central government regime -- buttressed by a professional, well-trained military (which now seems to have been a vain aspiration).

As well, especially during the Bush days, the Americans made the fatal error of equating political freedom with "free enterprise." Iraq's "liberators" were as intent on guaranteeing open markets in Iraq (and open, most especially, to U.S. corporations such as Halliburton) as on building a truly "open society."

Apart from the Kurdish exception, there was little place in the Bush government's Iraq program for sharing the nation's wealth among the regions, dividing and sharing power between the centre and the regions, or developing viable local entities of government.

And there was virtually no place for any notions of social justice or equality as fundamental values of the new Iraqi State.

In practical terms, governance in post-Saddam Iraq quickly became, for the most part, a matter of self-rewarding greed, revenge, and exclusion.

Even as it proposes to increase Canadian military participation in the region, the Harper government fully recognizes that the way Iraq has been governed since the American and allied "victory" over Saddam has been, to be blunt, a mess.

Back in July of this year, Foreign Minister John Baird openly expressed the Canadian government's "disappointment" with the failure of the Iraqi political class to come up with anything resembling an "inclusive" governance arrangement.

That failure is not new. It goes back a number of years.

The Americans have, too late, discovered federalism and decentralization

The current Obama U.S. government now very much recognizes the reality of failure in Iraqi nation building, as well.

Too late, maybe a decade too late, the Americans are now touting decentralization and a new federal constitution as the only solution that will allow Iraq to remain as one.

In July, the former US Ambassador to Iraq, Zalmay Khalilzad, and former CIA Director for the Persian Gulf region, Kenneth Pollack, signed a piece in the New Republic making the case for federalism in precise and clear terms.

After enumerating the two other bad options for Iraq, endless civil war or partition, Khalilzad and Pollack write:

"What brought Iraq to this impasse is the fear in Iraq's periphery -- the Sunnis, Kurds, and the Shi'a of the deep south -- of the efforts by its centre ... to oppress them. The leaders of these communities might agree to join a new government, but they are only going to be willing to make it work if there are far-reaching, structural changes ... to decentralize power, security and wealth from the center to the periphery. In other words, they are only going to be willing to participate in a new Iraqi political process if there is real federalism."

It all sounds so reasonable now, although it is noteworthy that the former U.S. diplomat and senior spy never evoke what Stephen Harper might call "noble" objectives, such as justice, or even fairness. What the two former insiders propose, they say frankly and hard-headedly, is all about protecting and upholding "American interests."

Nonetheless, however self-centredly expressed, the current U.S. policy may represent at least a glimmer of enlightenment.

This late in the day, however, the bitter legacy of the previous short-sighted and ineffective American policy may be almost impossible to reverse.

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