Canada to Stay out of Iraq War
History - War
THIS TIME, the U.S. cared enough to mention Canada by name. Canadians had groused at being excluded from the list of countries George W. Bush thanked for their support in a speech following Sept. 11. But last week, after Ottawa refused to join in the attack on Iraq, U.S. State Department spokesman Richard Boucher didn't hesitate to let America's northern neighbour know that Washington was paying close attention. "We're disappointed," he told reporters, "that some of our closest allies, including Canada, do not agree on the urgent need for action."

Jean CHRÉTIEN's decision to oppose the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq to topple Saddam Hussein was not unexpected. The Prime Minister had been saying for months that Canada was unlikely to join an invasion without explicit support from the United Nations. And although he had left a sliver of doubt about Canada's involvement - it could occur under certain undefined circumstances - he told the House last week he believes UN arms inspectors could have gotten Saddam's co-operation on disarmament, given a little more time. A government official told Maclean's the Prime Minister would likely have joined in a U.S.-led invasion had his proposal for a final end-of-March ultimatum to Saddam been adopted. Chrétien was quick to add in his statements that Canada would be eager to commit resources and funds for the reconstruction of Iraq following the war.

Chrétien's decision was popular with Liberal, NDP and Bloc Québécois MPs. And it will be welcomed by most Canadians. Polls have consistently found a large majority do not favour Canada acting outside the UN umbrella. But critics, particularly the Canadian Alliance, argued Chrétien had placed the country outside the circle of its traditional allies - most notably the U.S., Great Britain and Australia - that have stuck together in most international conflicts over the past century. "I don't know what the ramifications are," warned Alliance Leader Stephen Harper, "but I know they won't be good."

The decision couldn't have come at a worse time. Relations between the Chrétien government and the Bush administration, never warm, have taken a decidedly sour turn following several ad hominem remarks by Canadian officials. In November, Françoise Ducros, then Chrétien's director of communications, called Bush "a moron" (she subsequently resigned), and last month Liberal MP Carolyn Parrish blurted out that she hated "those bastards," referring to Americans. Last week, more Liberals joined the chorus: some accused Bush of hypocrisy and arrogance, while Natural Resources Minister Herb Dhaliwal said Bush is not "a statesman." The U.S. administration is noting the personal attacks, says Christopher Sands, Canada-watcher with the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies, and the comments are fuelling the view that Canada is no longer a trustworthy friend. "I've heard several people in the administration stutter about referring to Canada as an ally," he added.

Nor could last week's announcement have been handled with less tact. Chrétien, whose low opinion of Bush is taken as a given in Washington, dispensed with the usual diplomatic courtesy of giving advance notice of a big announcement and did not call the President to inform him of the decision. Foreign Affairs Minister Bill Graham later compounded the snub by bluntly asserting no warning was necessary because "the ambassador from the United States is quite capable of watching Canadian television." In contrast, U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell phoned Graham that afternoon, alerting him that Bush would soon issue a 48-hour ultimatum to Saddam. Historian Jack Granatstein, chairman of the Council for Canadian Security in the 21st Century, said Chrétien's reluctance to follow basic protocol was incomprehensible. "It was just plain rude," he added. "What kind of appraisal of our national interest did this government go through for the sake of saying, 'we acted tough, we stood up to the Americans'? I just find this bizarre."

The irony, says Sands, is that Ottawa has a good case to make that it is standing by the U.S. during its time of trial. In the fight against terrorism, Canada has committed about 2,000 troops to Afghanistan this summer, a significant contribution given the stretched state of the Canadian military. In February, Canada took command of the multinational naval group, known as Task Force 151, patrolling the Persian Gulf region. Canada is deploying three frigates in the area and the destroyer HMCS Iroquois is en route. In addition to 30 Canadian Forces personnel working at the U.S. Central Command in Qatar, there are 150 Canadian troops on exchange with U.S. and British forces in the area who could see action. These are real commitments, Sands notes, but largely overlooked because of the growing perception the Canadian government is reflexively anti-American.

Will Canada pay a price for what Chrétien maintains is a stand on principle? The official line is no. Chrétien noted that the U.S. trades with Canada not because "they're nice," but because it's in U.S. self-interest. But with so many areas of contention - immigration concerns, border security and trade irritants, including softwood lumber and the Wheat Board, to name just a few - the war decision is bound to reverberate. Granatstein said that having a buddy in the White House does not necessarily deliver everything Canada wants. But, he added, "there's a big difference between having a president who basically wants to help, and having one who wants to punish you or is indifferent to you."

Ottawa could find itself on the outside looking in as the fallout from Iraq rebounds on the very multilateral institutions it cherishes. Conservatives in Washington believe such bodies as the UN and NATO have shown themselves incapable of confronting the great international challenges of the new century - rogue states and rising Islamic terrorism - and will likely seek altered alliances post-Iraq. "Those institutions were established when Canada was a rising star because of its role in the Second World War," Sands says, "so you got a big voice on how they were set up." If the U.S. moves to remake those bodies, he adds, Canada likely will be largely shut out of the discussion.

Canada's best opportunity for repairing the breach with the U.S. will come once the regime changes in Ottawa, Sands adds. Chrétien and Bush never did see eye to eye on most things, but the dynamic could change should former finance minister Paul Martin win the Liberal leadership. "They're much more compatible as individuals," Sands says. Both are former businessmen from privileged backgrounds who spent most of their lives outside politics and are conservative by nature. One of the first signals Martin would be well advised to send, says Sands, is to forthrightly deal with the anti-Americanism in the Liberal party. That way, Americans would get a clearer picture of the many ways Canada is standing by its neighbour, rather than backing away.

Maclean's March 31, 2003

Author JULIAN BELTRAME