Ten years ago today, Canadians watched live on television the “shock and awe” meted on Baghdad, as the world’s greatest air force rained precision munitions on one of the ancient world’s greatest cities. Thus began the second U.S.-Iraq war.
A decade later, Iraq can be described as a sectarian mess, beset by ethnic violence and political instability. Apologists for the United States’ Iraq intervention might respond that no one ever said it would be an easy or short campaign to take Iraq from the grips of Saddam Hussein’s murderous regime, which had ruled with an iron fist for over 20 years, and transform the country into something approaching a pluralistic democracy.
In fact, quite the opposite was argued by the Bush administration. This crowd claimed that following a six-week military campaign, the venal regime would be eradicated and a grateful and liberated Iraqi populace, which had deep religious and ethnic divisions and no democratic history whatsoever, would spontaneously unite and embrace democracy. All that was required of the United States and the “coalition of the willing” was the stomach to take out Saddam and nature would take its course.
It was in this context that then-prime minister Jean Chrétien had to make a historic decision. For weeks prior to March 20, his government had gone through a wrenching internal debate about what to do when Washington exercised its military option. Few were under any illusions that war was coming.
Most of the politicians and senior officials were dubious about both the Bush administration’s rationale for going to war — to eliminate Saddam’s alleged stockpile of weapons of mass destruction — as well as what Washington claimed would follow on the ground once the dictator was gone.
There was, however, a significant minority within the government that felt Canada must be in alignment with Washington on Iraq, come what may. A handful of ministers and senior officials held this view, as did some of the Canadian Forces leadership. Failure to support the Americans in Iraq, even if it was largely symbolic, was particularly difficult for the generals to rationalize. It was a perspective conditioned by a familial bond that exists between the CF leadership and their U.S. counterparts that is hard to overstate.
The prime minister was unmoved. Canada would not be going to war in Iraq with our U.S. cousins. And with the benefit of a decade of hindsight, it is hard to argue that his decision was anything but wise and courageous.
Yet at the time, there were important voices in this country — some newspapers and academics, prominent business people and the Conservative opposition — that felt it was a terrible choice. Even today, some maintain that Chrétien’s decision was nothing more than pandering to pacifist and naïve Canadian public sentiment, rather than an example of real leadership.
There is no doubt that public opinion played a role in Chrétien’s decision, as it does in the major foreign and domestic policy decisions of any government. Polls at the time showed that Canadians were deeply opposed to involvement in a war with Iraq, and this attitude was especially strong in Quebec, a province to which the government paid disproportionate attention. The fact that, in this country, George Bush was probably the most unpopular U.S. president in history didn’t help matters.
Yet there were also three deeply principled reasons underlying Canada’s Iraq war decision. Chrétien himself has always maintained that he was never presented with any convincing evidence from the Americans that Saddam possessed the elusive weapons of mass destruction that were the pretext for going to war.
Then there was the matter of the “Bush Doctrine” — the policy foundation for the U.S. invasion of Iraq — that endorsed the idea of pre-emptive war against countries that were a perceived threat to the United States.
This policy, born in the ashes of the World Trade Center, was not without controversy in the U.S. In Canada, however, it was radioactive, anathema to everything this country had stood for in international relations for 60 years.
Canada just doesn’t do pre-emptive war.
Adherents to the Bush Doctrine in Washington also exhibited disdain, if not outright hostility, toward the United Nations, rejecting it as a decision-making forum on the Iraq question. This attitude ran up against another hard reality in Canada, namely that when it comes to international peace and security, governments in this country had always treated the UN and multilateralism as part of the Canadian DNA, the foreign-policy equivalent of medicare.
These then were Canada’s three red lines, and Washington had crossed all of them.
Today, Canadians can be secure in the knowledge that their government’s decision 10 years ago to stay out of the Iraq war was both correct and principled. It is to be hoped that our American cousins learned something about Canada a decade ago.
Eugene Lang, co-author of The Unexpected War: Canada in Kandahar, was chief of staff to two Liberal ministers of national defence. He wrote this for the Ottawa Citizen.
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