Could Trudeau ever find common ground between combatants in Syria? Photo by Chris Wattie, Reuters Media Express.
Drop, for a moment, the question of whether Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was right to stop the Canadian air war against the Islamic State and triple our training commitment to Iraqi, Kurdish, and Syrian opponents of ISIS. Never mind whether Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan thinks we're involved in a war or just a "conflict."
Let's just imagine that we and the other enemies of ISIS have won. We've occupied Raqqa and Mosul, imprisoned Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi and their fighters have deserted or surrendered.
What happens next?
If generals always want to fight the last war again (and do it right this time), governments always want a peace that will advance their own interests and be politically popular at home. Finding such a peace in the Middle East will be almost impossible.
At the end of World War One, almost exactly a century ago, the West defeated the Ottoman Empire. Its provinces, from the Mediterranean to the Persian Gulf, were at the mercy of the armies of Britain and France, whose governments had already secretly divided those provinces, with arbitrary new boundaries drawn by a disastrously clever woman named Gertrude Bell.
With few political institutions above the tribal level, the Arab world was unable to resist what the Western victors imposed, let alone establish self-governing states along the lines of U.S. President Woodrow Wilson's 14 Points for post-war peace. Self-government might apply to Europe, but not to regions still considered colonies by Europe's victors.
The result has been a century of grief and violence across the Muslim world. Canada has been intermittently involved: As peacekeepers after the disastrous 1956 Suez invasion by Britain, France and Israel; as rescuers of six U.S. diplomats in Iran; as participants in the endless Afghan wars and the Libyan civil war; and now in the Syrian civil war.
The Hundred-Year War
Economically and politically, we've had very little at stake in this Hundred-Year War; whether we fight or clean up the mess, we're just trying to be good neighbours.
Lester Pearson won the Nobel Peace Prize by creating peacekeeping to clean up Suez, but he bought little more than a truce. Sixty years later, the wars continue. And the West's Pavlovian response is simply to bomb and bomb again, as if that response had liberated North Korea and Vietnam and Iraq and Libya.
Training local troops, as Trudeau intends, makes more sense. After all, it's their fight and their country, and it's easier to sacrifice them than our own soldiers. But what are we really training them for -- to be the next generation of our pet thugs and crooks?
That, after all, has been the West's default policy since the First World War ended. We imposed treaties, engineered coups, armed our clients to fight proxy wars, and bribed ambitious generals into doing our dirty work. As the Americans used to say about many a pet thug, "He's a son of a bitch, but he's our son of a bitch."
That attitude passed for "realism" and in some ways it was indeed realistic. Churchill fought the Communists for 20 years yet made an alliance with them to defeat the Nazis. But realism has only ensured yet more sons of bitches embroiling us in yet more wars.
Getting beyond a temporary alliance of enemies
What would a real Middle East settlement look like, when so many regional adversaries are sometimes our friends and sometimes our foes?
Our allies the Turks hate our allies the Kurds, who were screwed out of their own nation a century ago and still want it. Our allies the Sunni Saudi Arabians hate our allies the Shia Iraqi government, not to mention the Israelis, who hate our allies against ISIS, the Shia Iranians. And all our Muslim allies hate Israel.
When you've largely exterminated your own enemies, as we did in the settlement of North America, it's easy to sigh about all the people in the Middle East mindlessly at one another's throats.
The difference is that the Aboriginal peoples died thanks to our guns, germs, and steel. The Middle East hasn't faced a truly superior military conqueror since the Ottomans. Like Tito ruling the Yugoslavs, the Turks enforced a semblance of peace, order and good government. Since they've been gone, the Middle East has been like post-Roman Europe, an anarchy of tribes, sects, invaders, and opportunists.
The West is no substitute for the Ottoman Empire, much less the Mongols who crippled Islam by sacking Baghdad in the 13th century. We can't find a modern Gertrude Bell and enforce her new boundaries with our own armies.
But Canada, having less face to lose than our great-power allies, might regain its role as honest broker.
A role for Canada the honest broker?
The peoples of the Middle East are superb at teaching their children about some 3,000 years (or more) of violent history. If any of those ancient enemies have modern descendants, those descendants are likely to hate one another. Many are also likely to see exterminating their enemies as the only way to gain both vengeance and security.
As an honest broker, Canada would have to persuade all combatants that a peaceful solution could be found without their own destruction.
The Arabs would need assurance that the Israelis would withdraw from occupied Palestine and allow a Palestinian state to emerge. The House of Saud would need assurance that Iran would not meddle with the Saudi Shia population (and neither would the Saudis). The Kurds would expect their own sovereign state, carved out of Iraq, Syria, and even Turkey. Who knows what the Israelis would demand in return for a permanent peace?
Meanwhile the Americans, Europeans, Russians, and likely even the Chinese, would expect influential roles and opportunities to stamp out any resurgence of radical Islamism while also getting their share of oil and other resources.
Trudeau has done all right so far in finding common ground among Canadians, but finding common ground among the combatants in Syria would be another story altogether. Somehow I can't see him smiling in a selfie with Benjamin Netanyahu while Putin and King Salman photobomb in the background.
But if we can think past the immediate need to keep ISIS from killing and terrorizing more people and consider how such a selfie might actually come about, we might find an idea or two.
One idea might be to carve out Chinese-style "special economic zones" in parts of Syria and Iraq, where refugees could find work in factories supplying cheap goods to the Middle East and other countries. The zones would be heavily defended and policed to prevent suicide bombers from getting in. Eventually, a taste of peace and prosperity might encourage the next generation to ignore its parents' vendettas and consider getting along with the neighbours.
Another possibility: Go headhunting among the best and brightest of the refugees, bring them to Canada and educate them to be everything a functional country needs: Doctors, teachers engineers, scientists, entrepreneurs, civil servants. Then send them home to rebuild, with adequate international funding to do the job.
Or as Robert Fisk has suggested, rebuild and extend education in the Arab countries themselves, reviving the institutions that made Islam an intellectual oasis during Europe's Dark Ages.
The one option that should be off the table is simply continuing the Hundred-Year War, whether we're involved directly or through proxies. That failed from the start and has never bought more than a few years' sullen quiet before still more violence. After the last disastrous century, armed repression is no longer a policy -- only a declaration of intellectual, political, and moral bankruptcy.