Harper, the Islamic State and the New War in Iraq

Then consider an organization that, in a mere seventeen days in August, beheaded 19 people after torturing them.

Patterns of violence and ruthlessness that in both their scale and form are difficult to contemplate.

But these aren’t the actions of the Islamic State. These are the responsibility of the Israeli and the Saudi governments respectively.

Yet the Harper government’s response is unwavering support for the human rights violations in the Israeli case and cold silence in the Saudi case. For these are Canada’s friends in the region — major recipients of Canadian arms and military technology — and so their acts of brutality and their flagrant violations of human rights rate no condemnation, inspire no cries of moral outrage from Canada’s political masters or corporate imperators.

Like all imperial powers, both larger and smaller, Canada’s hubris is cut with a deep and abiding hypocrisy rarely acknowledged by its rulers. The human rights records of its enemies are denounced at every available opportunity, and in the case of some, such as Venezuela, grossly overstated. The records of its allies are inconvenient facts the government doesn’t discuss or allow to distract it from its righteous mission of bringing order to the world. Order, on this view, assumes the form of compliant liberal democratic (or not-so-democratic) governments and anemic economic and environmental regulations friendly to multinational corporations.

When Stephen Harper announced his government’s plans to send Canadian special forces to participate to the US-led war against the Islamic State in Iraq, he said it was in “Canada’s national interests” to do so. How exactly that is he didn’t say. A spokesperson for Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird suggested the Islamic State represents “a direct threat to Canada,” without offering any evidence of this. One thing is clear from the comments of Harper and his cabinet ministers, as well as from the corporate media response to Canada’s decision to enter the next round of the Bush Jr.-initiated Iraq War: we are being prepared right from the start for the possibility of a long intervention with a lot more soldiers.

The Islamic State is, of course, extremely violent and ruthless towards those that don’t share its worldview. But that doesn’t make them unique in the region, as I’ve already suggested. What’s key for Harper is that they’re simply not politically useful for the Canadian ruling class and its imperial allies in the way the Israelis or Saudis are.

The inconvenient facts of the mess in Iraq and Canadian foreign policy are too abundant to pass over if we want to properly assess the Harper government’s support for the war. As Michael Schwartz has argued, for instance, the Islamic State is part of a broader Sunni insurgency against the violent and extremely corrupt Maliki government of Iraq, whose own human rights record — including the killing of Sunni protesters — is not inspiring. The Islamic State is obviously prominent in what Schwartz and others have called the insurgency against Maliki, but the insurgency includes other forces. These include ex-Baathists fired from their jobs for party affiliation (even though many of them were forced to join the Baath party during Saddam Hussein’s rule in order to obtain public sector jobs) and others  suffering from the government policy of  sharing the spoils of oil wealth with its Shia supporters while systematically underfunding impoverished Sunni areas of the country. Canada and the US surely know of the broader nature of the insurgency and its political backdrop.

They also likely know that a considerable part of the Islamic State’s funding, as Robert Fisk and Patrick Cockburn have reported in the Independent, has come from their regional ally Saudi Arabia, whose religious extremist and authoritarian government and its wealthy friends have been backers of fundamentalist anti-Shia jihadi movements in the region.

So Canada is joining a war in defense of a repressive and extremely corrupt government  against a violent but multi-faceted insurgency whose most ruthless component, the Islamic State, has received support from a regional ally that recently concluded a multi-billion dollar deal to buy Canadian military exports.

The recent track record of Canadian military interventions is ugly if we view it from the vantage point of the populations under fire (see Afghanistan 2001-2014, Libya 2011 and Haiti 2004). In spite of the inevitable state rhetoric to the contrary, the human rights of the people of the country targeted have never been the real reason for Canadian decisions to invade and occupy. The tangled web of repression, corruption and political machinations by regional powers surrounding Part 2 of the Iraq War is crystal clear evidence of this most basic fact of Canadian foreign and security policy.

Imperialist countries, with their militaries, political moralizing and free market prescriptions, can’t bring freedom, democracy or anything resembling social justice to the world. Nor do they even want to. That’s never been the case, and it’s not going to change now. The War on Terror is no different. Its principal agenda clearly isn’t stopping terrorism — again, think Israel or Saudi Arabia, or witness the rise of the Islamic State itself. Its goal is to reorder the world in their economic image, backed by the agenda of endless war on people who don’t acquiesce that was enunciated by Bush Jr.

Imperialist intervention got Iraq and the surrounding region into the terrible situation it faces today. To think things will somehow play out differently this time — or that the US and Canada really care about the Iraqi people — is naïve in the extreme. Harper cares about the well-being of workers and the poor abroad as much as he cares about them at home, and thus his foreign policy must be combated just as much as his domestic policy.

Todd Gordon is the author of Imperialist Canada (Arbeiter Ring, 2010). He is currently completing a new book on Canadian imperialism in Latin America with Jeffery Webber. He is a member of the Toronto New Socialists.