Recently, my colleague Kelly McParland wrote — correctly, in my view — that despite all the “Canada is back” rhetoric, we’re not exactly blowing the international community away with our leadership and influence. There’s an interesting situation in the Middle East right now that speaks to that: If Canada’s back, where is it?
Just over a month ago, in these pages, I wrote how the Western alliance is gripped by indecision and paralysis due to the unpredictable occupant of the Oval Office. I recounted how, at the very same time that Donald Trump was savaging Japan for being a lousy ally to the United States, Japan was, in fact, contributing forces to a large U.S.-led naval exercise. Meanwhile, as the president of the United States was publicly doubting an ally, the country was also asking its allies for help. The U.S. wanted to establish a multi-national naval task force to patrol the Persian Gulf and keep open vital sea lanes, which had been threatened by Iranian provocations. When you consider how much of the world’s energy supply must transit those waters, the importance of keeping them open and safe becomes clear. But major U.S. allies didn’t seem interested. Given the circumstances, it was hard to blame them. These days, the U.S.’s right hand doesn’t seem to know what its left hand is tweeting.
There are other concerns beyond President Trump, of course, notably including that the U.S. was mostly asking European nations for help, and Europe is taking a much softer line on Iran than Washington is of late. And then there is the overall inability and unwillingness of much of the Western alliance to properly contribute to its own security, which Trump has been right to call out. But the policy incoherence coming out of the U.S. isn’t helping matters.
You’re probably wondering where I’m going with this — bear with me a moment longer, it’ll loop back to Canada shortly. Since I wrote that column, the Persian Gulf has gotten even more complicated. A few weeks ago, the Iranians seized a British-flagged tanker. The Iranians said it was violating local navigation rules; the British believe it’s retaliation for the recent seizure of an Iranian ship by Royal Marines (the British claim the ship, seized in Gibraltar, was carrying oil to Syria in violation of European sanctions). The seizure of the tanker, which remains in Iranian custody, brought tensions even higher in a region already on edge after recent attacks on tankers. The United States has identified Iran as the source of the attacks.
In short, the Persian Gulf, a vital seaway for global trade, is on edge. The essential flow of energy through those waters is at risk of a flareup between Iran and other nations. The U.S. has called for reinforcements. None have come. Now the British are trying the same thing.
It’s strange to write this, but it’s true. Both the U.S. and the British are calling for international task forces. There’s no assurance either will get one, or how they’d co-operate with each other if both did. But it struck me as notable because this is exactly the kind of thing that Canada has long contributed to. It’s a meaningful but relatively low-risk contribution to international security, in direct support of and co-operation with our two closest allies. Joining one or the other, or both depending on how they were co-ordinated, makes sense.
There’s no assurance (the U.S. or Britain) will get (international task forces), or how they’d co-operate with each other if both did.
The Canadian Press reported last week that Canada has not been asked by the United Kingdom to join the international task force. The focus in London, the report said, has been on European allies, particularly Germany and France. That makes sense. British relations with its European allies are, to put it mildly, bizarre at the moment. But there’s nothing stopping Canada from offering its help. Canadian ships do take part in operations in or around the Persian Gulf. It wouldn’t be huge break with routine for one of our frigates to patrol those vital waters.
The Navy, of course, doesn’t have a lot of ships to spare these days. We have one converted civilian ship operating (effectively!) as a supply ship, and 12 frigates doing the work of 15 ships, since our destroyers rusted out without replacements. The fleet has been getting by using small patrol ships as Canadian contributions to exercises and missions. The light vessels have gotten the job done when watching for drug smugglers but would look awfully cute trying to survive an actual naval battle, which no one is ruling out in the Persian Gulf.
The sad truth is, even if Canada volunteered, or was asked and felt obligated to join a U.S.- or British-led effort, there’s damn little we could contribute. Our dozen frigates, though recently modernized, aren’t all available for deployment at the same time. Crews need rest, ships need maintenance, and we have to patrol our own waters. There are other international missions we are expected to contribute to as well.
Could we find a frigate to send to the Persian Gulf, above and beyond those we send from time to time? Probably, so long as we didn’t need it to stay long, and nothing else happened anywhere else in the world while it was on its way.
It’s a familiar refrain from me, I admit. But the facts are the facts. Our military is too small to simultaneously perform both the missions we expect it to: protecting Canada at home and supporting our allies abroad. Upgrading our frigates was good, but you still need to have enough to them to cover all our obligations. Right now, we can’t. So enough with the “Canada’s back” nonsense. We’re barely here at all.