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The Salon is ONW's weekly gathering place where three of Canada's brightest and most respected political strategists - John Capobianco , Marit Stiles and Richard Mahoney - come together to analyze national issues affecting Ontario. 

Prime Minister Stephen Harper has been talking like a hawk when it comes to Russian President Vladimir Putin's military excursions  in Ukraine, ISIS' aggressive violence in Iraq as well as the Gaza/Israel conflict. Should Canada be sending "military advisors" to Iraq, eventually send in combat troops, increase sanctions or use diplomacy alone? Or should we just not get involved? 

John Capobianco:

The world has been watching with much anxiety for many months the moves and words of Russian President Vladimir Putin as he illegally occupied the Crimean peninsula in Ukraine. This situation remains volatile. Recently, the crisis with ISIS has garnered front-page news with both the Canadian and American governments taking action to condemn the conflict. In both these international hotspots, the PM and his government have taken decisive steps to protect Canadians and Canadian interests abroad.

In the case of Russia's occupation in Ukraine, the PM was quick to condemn Putin's actions outright and align with NATO. In fact, the federal government has offered financial aid in the form of $5 million dollars - three of which to go towards cyber security initiatives and one million to upgrade communications/command capabilities. Further, Canada is expected to contribute to the NATO "Readiness Action Plan" which will enhance NATO's existing force there.

With ISIS, sending Minister John Baird and Opposition members Marc Garneau and Paul Dewar to the region was a sign of this government wanting to take quick action. Mr. Harper has agreed to deploy several dozen military advisors to Iraq to work with the US forces in providing much needed tactical guidance to Iraqi and Kurdish fighters.


Marit Stiles:

Our NATO allies were certainly calling Harper to task last week for his tough talk and Canada's rather meagre contribution.

But I won't be the one in this chat calling for an increase in our military presence or in military spending.

The fact is we are too small to deliver any game-changing impact on the military front. And it's long been that way.

Having said that, there was a time when Canada was able to have a greater impact through solid diplomacy, but under the Harper Conservatives, we've lost the international credibility to take a lead in that regard.

Had it not been for Harper's cuts to foreign affairs and his approach to foreign policy, Canada could have stronger diplomatic clout. But our PM is more interested in grandstanding than doing the tough diplomatic work.

In case of Iraq, we're sending troops, but the government is vague about the numbers and their mission. Meanwhile, we're dropping the ball on humanitarian aid.

Richard Mahoney:

Marit brings up a couple of important points here. The first is that Mr. Harper tends to be all hat, without much cattle on the foreign affairs front.

He talks tough on Putin and the Ukraine, but does not step up when NATO asks. In fact, Mr. Harper now spends less on defence and international affairs than we did in the so-called decade of darkness. He has reduced spending on our international obligations, including the military, from its high water mark achieved under his predecessor, Prime Minister Paul Martin.

Former Conservative Prime Minister Brian Mulroney was right when he recently ripped Mr. Harper's approach to international affairs: "When Canada, for the first time in our history, loses a vote at the United Nations to become a member of the Security Council to ... Portugal, which was on the verge of bankruptcy at the time, you should look in the mirror and say: ‘Houston, I think we have a problem.’”

Mr. Mulroney said Mr. Harper's approach has made us "outliers" in the international community.

That said, the world cannot stand by on Ukraine, or ISIS. Sending advisors is part of our obligation. But what mandate? On whose request? What are the parameters?

We need a national discussion and parliamentary debate on this, because the implications are profound.


John Capobianco:

I absolutely have to take issue with Marit on her claim that the PM and this government has lost international credibility - nothing can be further from the truth.

In fact, it is this PM and this government that is seen as a leader and a force in the international community, especially among the G7 - whether it was the financial leadership Canada showed by recovering from the deep recession before any other industrialized nation, and was often called upon to provide counsel to other nations or the many times when Canada is called on to act decisively when strong leadership is required on the international stage.

But we are talking about the NDP and their track record with international affairs leaves something to be desired.

Now, lets talk about the Liberals and Richard's claim that this PM is all hat and no cattle - oh, I hear the laughter when folks read this... really? Comparing PM Harper to your leader on the international scene? Can we recall the hockey comment made by Justin Trudeau when Putin first suggested occupying Ukraine? Or the recent irresponsible comments made by your leader's foreign affairs "advisor" on Israel?

This coming election will be about a number of key domestic issues, not least of which the economy. However, it will most certainly also be about who can best manage the ever tumultuous international scene as conflicts continue to arise. This is where Canadians will absolutely put their trust in PM Harper.


Marit Stiles:

I don't think I'm reaching terribly far to claim that Canada has lost ground on international diplomacy. The UN Security Council? Remember that? Sorry, John but this government has lost a tonne of international credibility over a number of decisions - from decreased African aid, to their support of Israel, and their stance on climate change and peacekeeping. Hugely unpopular stances generally with the international community.

But let's get back to the issue at hand. It's hard to understand Baird's decision to send more troops to Iraq when according to NDP Foreign Affairs Critic Paul Dewar - who attended the same meetings presumably as Baird while in Iraq - all of the officials they met, including the President of Iraq and President of the Kurdistan regional government, said they did not need boots on the ground.

Rather, the NDP has been calling on the government to instead focus resources on helping internally displaced Iraqis who are fleeing the militants...exactly as the Iraq officials requested.

We need parliamentary debate and parliamentary approval before Canadian advisers leave for the region. That's always been the NDP's position and it's sound: when you're sending troops abroad you need to have a defined mission. Canadians have a right to understand what they are doing there, and why.R


Richard Mahoney:

You are not reaching, Marit. Surely John can do better than respond to the facts on Mr. Harper's international record, and former PM Brian Mulroney's stunning critique of it, than referring to jokes made about hockey teams. Let's get serious.

John also brings up Israel. All responsible countries in the world favour a two state solution in Israel. Israel has agreed to the concept in numerous international agreements and actions.

The government of Canada has always, under past Liberal and Conservative governments, supported and promoted that as the only potential for lasting piece in the region.

But Mr. Harper and his government never mention it. Instead, they play wedge politics, rather than be a constructive force for peace. That is why Mulroney was so critical, and so right.

But back to the commitment to send forces to Iraq, and the question of what to do in Ukraine and other international conflicts. Andrew Coyne’s recent column makes the case well. There are no quick fixes, no easy fly-bys, and Mr. Harper’s tough talk is cheap. We need a national conversation on how to approach these new threats. We need to know the mandates of any forces we deploy and we need to build consensus and support around those choices.

Where is the humanitarian response? Shouldn’t Canada lead on that? Where are the resources? 

And where is the national leadership on this important debate? As usual, it is not coming from our government, and that is a shame.  


About The Salon's Capobianco, Stiles, Mahoney

Richard Mahoney is a former Liberal advisor to Rt. Hon. Paul Martin; Marit Stiles is a federal and Ontario NDP strategist; and John Capobianco is a former CPC candidate and long-time party activist in both the federal and Ontario Conservative parties
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