Prime Minister Justin Trudeau

The moral question can’t be ignored in battling Islamic State

By 
  • February 21, 2016

There’s more than political interest, strategic advantage, and military considerations in the decision to end Canadian bombing runs over Syria and Iraq in favour of more military trainers on the ground and additional spending on aid and development.

“Every judgment is a moral judgment,” political scientist Matt Dinan told The Catholic Register.

“One of the real tragedies about contemporary international politics and foreign policy, and the way in which it is waged, is that we allow ourselves to slide into action in an unconsidered way that doesn’t allow us time for that kind of reflection.”

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, fulfilling an election promise, has changed tack on Canada’s contribution to the fight against the Islamic State, recallng the CF-18s the former government had contributed to the cause. Instead, Canada will ramp up its training mission for local forces opposing Islamic State fighters.

Dinan holds the St. John XXIII Chair in Catholic Studies at St. Thomas University in New Brunswick. As an expert in the political thought of St. Thomas Aquinas, he thinks the saint’s principles have plenty to teach us about how Canada should participate in the war against Islamic State terror.

“War is never a positive good. It is sought for the purpose of peace. So there has to be some consideration of whether or not peace can be achieved at the end,” he said. “People are right to be wary about that. But the genocide of Middle Eastern religious minorities and people who aren’t religious minorities in Syria in particular is also a tragedy.”

On just political grounds, the decision to withdraw Canada’s CF-18s from the American-led bombing campaign isn’t clear cut, said Thomas Tieku, a political scientist at St. Jerome’s College in Waterloo, Ont.

“It certainly has implications for our membership and our allies, in particular our NATO partners,” Tieku said.

But what kind of war Canada should wage in the Middle East is not just a matter of alliances and political standing.

“From a moral perspective, changing the strategy to reflect development fits with more of the moral standard in which we try not to destroy,” said Tieku. “Bombardment, for sure you would destroy infrastructure.”

The trouble with flattening cities held by Islamic State forces is that the strategy creates e ven more refugees. The city may have been liberated, but citizens can’t return to uninhabitable buildings with no water, no services.

“The other moral dilemma has to do with the fact that after the bombardment most of the countries which would have engaged in this bombardment would have some of their citizens competing for contracts to rebuild,” Tieku said. “On the one hand your military destroys it. On the other hand your business groups” bid to rebuild.

Ottawa has pledged $1.1 billion over the next three years in development and humanitarian assistance in the region. It includes $840 million to provide water, food, shelter, health care, sanitation, hygiene, protection and education to 6.5 million internally displaced Syrians and 4.2 million Syrian refugees in the region.

Another $270 million will help governments deal with their infrastructure needs.

The Canadian Catholic Organization for Development and Peace intends to be part of that effort.

“Development and Peace is a huge player with tremendous capacity to help advance a number of priorities outlined by this government,” said executive director David Leduc.

But Leduc wants to see some coherence between Canada’s military and humanitarian strategies.

“Any time force is used there’s a side that loses,” he said. “When a side loses there are feelings of anger and resentment that can grow into more powerful sentiments, such as hate. Those do nothing but fuel conflict in communities.”

Development and Peace works with local organizations in Syria and the surrounding countries which are trying to create peace and understanding across ethnic, tribal and religious lines. Military victory by foreign forces could undermine the goodwill such efforts create, leaving another defeated, humiliated generation to identify with Islamic State or similar organizations who promise revenge and victory for their side.

“You can have a military or political peace on the surface, but unless there’s buy-in and ownership over that from civil society and local populations, it will only be a matter of time before such a peace fails,” said Leduc.

The Catholic judgment on mass bombing campaigns is pretty unequivocal — “indiscriminate destruction of whole cities or vast areas with their inhabitants is a crime against God and man,” says Gaudium et Spes.

But the situation in the Middle East isn’t just about applying high principles from the comfort of an easy chair, said Dinan. The politics and morality call for prudence, first of St. Thomas’ list of virtues.

“The danger is that (military intervention) would become either a proxy war or an outright war with Russia. That is a risk not worth taking. The moral hazard there far outweighs the benefit that could be achieved at this point.”

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