Canada and the Iraq War: 10 years on

Ten years ago the United States and its “Coalition of the Willing” invaded Iraq to overthrow Saddam Hussein, eliminate Iraq’s (non-existent) weapons of mass destruction, and remake the Middle East in the U.S. image.

The government of Jean Chrétien declined to sign Canada on as a member of that coalition, but it did provide various forms of support to the Coalition forces (see Wikipedia summary) – emphasizing its support in behind-the-scenes talks with the Bush administration.

Then-Opposition Leader Stephen Harper called the Chrétien government’s decision not to join the Willing “a serious mistake,” declaring that the “Canadian Alliance – the official opposition in parliament – supports the American and British position” in favour of war.

Ten years later, people willing to express that view are pretty hard to find.

This week, former prime minister Chrétien and other members of his government have been doing something of a victory lap, celebrating the wisdom of his “principled” decision-making concerning Canada and Iraq.

Canadians were indeed lucky that it was Jean Chrétien and not Stephen Harper who was prime minister at the time.

But the former prime minister’s self-congratulations tour ignores how close he actually came to committing Canada to the Iraq debacle. And the principles on which he based his decision were only half right at best.

Necessary conditions versus Sufficient conditions

By establishing legality of the war (via a decision of the UN Security Council) as a necessary condition for Canadian support, Chrétien affirmed a crucial principle that was both consistent with longstanding Canadian foreign policy and overwhelmingly supported by the Canadian public.

But he was utterly wrong to treat that necessary condition as a sufficient condition for war.

Legality was not the only important issue. Questions of justification, motivation, proportionality, protection of innocents, and the likely outcome of the war, including long-term regional and global consequences, must also be considered before any responsible government decides to send its citizens to kill other people and possibly be killed. The Iraq War was a disaster in far more respects than just legality, and it would still have been a disaster even if the UN Security Council had given it the legal go-ahead.

Where were these considerations in Canadian policy? Had the members of the Security Council voted to authorize the war – and it is worth remembering that the efforts to bully and bribe them to do so were intense and might very well have succeeded – Prime Minister Chrétien would have signed Canadians on as explicit members of the Coalition regardless of the disaster about to unfold.

Had that resolution passed, no one would be celebrating Chrétien’s “principled” decision today.

Compounding that folly, Chrétien and his government worked hard at the UN to promote a “compromise” resolution that, had it been passed by the Security Council, would have cleared the path for war in return for giving Saddam a few more weeks to do the impossible – prove that Iraq did not have weapons of mass destruction to the satisfaction of a Bush administration that was never going to take zero for an answer. It is fortunate that this “Canadian compromise” went nowhere.

Perhaps Chrétien was playing a deep game – pushing the “compromise” to demonstrate Canada’s willingness to go to war while quietly counting on Russia, China, and France to use their vetoes to prevent actual authorization of war. Much more likely, however, is that he considered passage of a resolution necessary to sell explicit participation in the war to a Canadian public that, despite Stephen Harper’s enthusiastic support and constant media cheerleading, was deeply opposed to the idea.

In the end, Canadians were fortunate that they were not conscripted into the Coalition of the Willing. The principle that legality ought to be a necessary condition of sending Canada to war was reinforced, although much less than it would have been had the government not gone on to support the war rhetorically and in multiple below-the-radar military ways. On the other side of the ledger, by confusing a necessary condition with a sufficient condition, the Chrétien government came close to committing Canadians explicitly to a disastrous war that it should have ruled out as an obvious folly from the very beginning. A fortunate decision it was, but a triumph of foreign policy sagacity it was not.

Still, it was a much better decision than it might have been. It takes only a moment’s contemplation of our current government to realize that the position taken in 2003 could easily have been much worse.

Tags: Canadian foreign policy, Canadian military, Coalition of the Willing, Iraq War, Jean Chretien, Stephen Harper, United Nations, United Nations Security Council, United States