On Feb. 5, 2003, Colin Powell went to the United Nations to make the case against Iraq. It was a theatrical performance, based on faulty intelligence and extravagant claims. It set the table for war.
On March 20, the United States attacked Iraq. Although the conflict unseated a murderous despot and introduced a rough democracy there, it was a colossal mistake.
When prime minister Jean Chrétien refused to join the war in Iraq, his decision was not cheered uniformly. Like the three-quarters of Americans who claimed, after John F. Kennedy was killed in 1963, that they’d voted for him, many Canadians today say they opposed going into Iraq.
Actually, that wasn’t so. Early on, public opinion was split. Many Canadians thought we were abandoning the U.S. and Britain. Some thought Chrétien was unsympathetic to the Americans and inept in conveying our skepticism. The leading cheerleader for the Americans in Iraq was Stephen Harper. As leader of the Canadian Alliance, he said in 2002 that he supported the argument against Iraq. In January 2003, he said that there was “no doubt” that Saddam Hussein had the ability to produce weapons of mass destruction.
Harper voted against a resolution in Parliament urging Canada to avoid a military commitment to Iraq, and he wrote in March in the Wall Street Journal that it was “a serious mistake” that Canada had remained outside the multilateral coalition.
Now Harper is prime minister. And now, 10 years on, Canada is being asked again to join an international coalition to respond to another global threat. But the call today does not come from the U.S., and the mission is not to remove a swaggering strongman in an ancient kingdom.
This time it is about Mali. The threat is the rising tide of Islamism in Africa, spawning a new wave of terrorism. The petitioner is France, the former colonial power; its partners include Africans principally, as well as some sympathetic Europeans and the Americans in lesser roles.
On platforms at home and abroad, Harper casts terrorism as the scourge of our time. Under the Conservatives, Canada fought in Afghanistan until 2011. “Canadians do not cut and run,” Harper declared when he first visited the troops in 2006. In 2011, Canada joined the air campaign in Libya.
So, you would think that Canada — led by a Conservative who supported the war in Iraq, kept troops in Afghanistan and helped liberate Libya, who trumpets a strong military and champions a moral, muscular Canada abroad — would have cried “Ready, aye, ready!” when asked to oppose the bad guys in Mali.
But not this time. In his statement on Jan. 14, the prime minister was painfully cautious. In nine short paragraphs, he says some six times, in different ways, that Canada isn’t getting involved militarily. “We’ll give you a big transport plane to get you into the field,” we told the French, “but for no longer than a week! Then we’re out, buster!”
Harper then promised to consult the leaders of the opposition. You do this when you want consensus on a tough issue, and when you need cover if things go wrong.
Since then, the government has committed Canada to stay in Mali until mid-February, offering more logistical support. This may be the beginning of “mission creep.”
In the meantime, the forces led by France have ousted the rebels from their strongholds in northern Mali. However encouraging, no one thinks this is over.
Indeed, if this is the existential threat to the West that the esteemed Robert Fowler and other experts believe that it is, Mali isn’t going away. And if Harper feels the way he did about Iraq, Afghanistan, Iran and Libya, he isn’t going to dismiss it.
Then again, he just might.
Remember, he is 10 years older. He is in power now, facing grave responsibilities and terrible risks to our blood and treasure, let alone the political consequences of a protracted war in a wary country.
That is the difference, for Harper, between Iraq in 2003 and Mali in 2013.
Andrew Cohen is a professor of journalism and international affairs at Carleton University.