The new decade begins with U.S. President Donald Trump trying to get out of his latest mess in Syria, Iraq and Iran.
The president has, for once, gone well past his usual huffing and puffing.
Early Friday morning, he made good on his threat to launch pre-emptive strikes against Iran for threatening Americans at their embassy in Baghdad. The U.S. killed the leader of Iran’s most elite Revolutionary Guard unit, the despicable Qassem Soleimani, as well as a leader of Shia militia proxies in Iraq.
Iran’s certain response to losing its most revered warrior and senior emissary to Iraq, Syria and Lebanon could trigger a much bigger, unpredictable counter-response. From there, things could spin out of control.
Hanging like a black cloud over the White House is the possible humiliation of the U.S. embassy in Baghdad being abandoned, Saigon-style, by American diplomats and Marines. Imagine the impact of images of them fleeing the embassy compound aboard helicopters and tilt-rotor Osprey aircraft.
That explains why more Marines and Apache attack helicopters have been rushed to Baghdad and a crack battalion of paratroopers from North Carolina are on standby in Kuwait.
Syria’s government and Hezbollah terrorists in Lebanon will be furious. On the other side, Saudi Arabia, the other Gulf states and Israel will be intriguing to seek advantage, too.
So, Happy New Year.
For all the heat and din the bloody actions in Baghdad are generating at the moment — and the hard blow to U.S. prestige that failure at the embassy or against Iran would result in — a fight with Tehran has been looming for years. It has the potential to become a deadly protracted sideshow to the main act of this century, and one that could affect the future presence of several hundred Canadian military trainers in the Iraqi capital, though they live and work within a highly secure Iraqi military base.
Otherwise, Canada does not really have a stake anywhere in the Middle East.
It may not seem like it at the moment, but a more ominous question for the decade ahead is whether it is during the Year of the Rat that the U.S. and China finally go from sparring verbally with each other to striking blows in what will be a long battle for control of the oceans of the Indo-Pacific. If we are lucky, that war, unlike the one festering in the Middle East, will be predominately economic, not military.
Canada has a lot at stake in the growing dispute between the U.S. and China over the South China Sea, and especially in how to respond if Beijing crosses that sea and attacks democratic Taiwan.
Canada’s defining foreign policy issue in 2020 will not be in the Middle East. It is what to do about Huawei. Does the Trudeau government dare to ignore hardline U.S. warnings that Canada’s security and trade relationship with Washington faces dire consequences if we welcome Huawei’s intrusive fifth-generation technologies? So far, Canada seems prepared to accept those economic and diplomatic consequences. However, no final decision has been made.
Despite the Canadian government’s unrequited love for China, polls have, for some time, shown that a declining number of Canadians agree with this approach. The public reckons Beijing’s “basic dictatorship,” admired by our prime minister, is not to be trusted despite the economic windfall the government highlights.
The government lives in a surreal universe where the Middle Kingdom’s ambitions are benign and Canadian businesses are poised to harvest unimaginable riches. Their stance is shameful considering the insults Chinese diplomats have hurled at this country, not to mention Beijing’s kidnapping and harsh treatment of two Canadians and its use of trade as a cudgel to achieve its foreign policy aims.
It is true that Trump has been ardently pursuing a limited trade deal with China, but the United States, as always, has a far bigger bag of carrots and sticks than Canada. Furthermore, Beijing’s clumsy imprecations, its bullying and global greediness are causing angst not only in Washington but Tokyo, Canberra, Auckland, Delhi and across western Europe, too.
To be factored in is the fact that, in a rare show of unity, almost the entire U.S. Congress and Senate back the president about the growing danger China poses. So do American intelligence agencies, generals and especially admirals, who saw China add dozens of new warships last year while Canada takes decades to produce even one. The Americans are also seriously troubled by the enormous number of much-improved missiles China is aiming at Taiwan and can aim at the U.S. Pacific fleet.
As the Royal Canadian Air Force and Royal Canadian Navy are joined at the hip with American forces and closely tied into their radar and satellite tracking systems, these developments should bother Canada, too. Beyond that, there is China’s very public ambition to become an Arctic power, and sooner rather than later.
Yet these potentially sinister shifts have elicited barely any comment in Ottawa, no plan of action from the government and little more from the opposition, which could gain politically from voters’ antipathy to China. Add to this Ottawa’s hypocrisy in claiming to be on the side of beleaguered Muslims around the world while barely mentioning China’s grotesque mistreatment of its Muslim Uighur minority.
What stinks most is the conga line of Canadian politicos and retired politicos whose personal dealings with China are opaque while — surprise, surprise — they forcefully advocate for closer ties with Beijing.
It is probably too much to hope that the opposition will use its majority on House and Senate committees to launch a serious investigation into whether and, if so, how China has comprised municipal, provincial and federal politicians. The committees could also consider what China’s huge number of diplomats (by far the biggest of any country) are up to on Canadian campuses and with university officials, as well as their relationship with Chinese students and researchers in Canada. Part of that process would be to unfetter Canada’s spy agencies as much as possible so that they can discuss the military, industrial and scientific research secrets China has targeted as a priority.
My guess is that after delaying as long as possible, Ottawa will have to risk China’s inevitable tantrums and finally reject Huawei’s newest technology, not because it wants to but because it has little choice. If it doesn’t, watch out!
Other than that, Canada will, as much as possible, try to hide this year behind the dramas fomented by Trump at home and in Syria, Iraq and now Iran. That diversion will likely help China, too, giving it greater freedom to do what it wants with countries such as Canada while global attention is on the U.S. and Iran.
The Trudeau government has to hope that Canadians will continue to ignore the world as much as it does and that the public doesn’t start pressing for a foreign policy that puts Canada’s security at its centre and a clear, even bold idea of how to manage relations with an economic Goliath and aspiring military superpower that is writing its own playbook and demanding that everyone follow it, or else.
But first, the world will be transfixed by the bloody, volatile sideshow caused by Iran’s constant meddling across the Middle East and Trump’s many miscalculations there.
Matthew Fisher is an international affairs columnist and foreign correspondent who has worked abroad for 35 years. You can follow him on Twitter at @mfisheroverseas.