Iraq and Canada—U.S. Relations
Around 6:30 P.M. on March 17, after the announcement that Canada would not join the Iraq War, the prime minister phoned me at my office. “What do you think?” he asked. I told him that there had been a lot of initial support in Canada. He was under no illusions. “Yes,” he said, “but it will be very rough. You know that with Bush on matters like this, you are with him or against him. He will be very vindictive.” I listened to what he said and then told him that I had received a call a few minutes earlier from a mutual friend of ours, the leading Canadian historian John English. “John says the decision to stay out of the war has averted a potential major national unity crisis.”
Chrétien asked me to elaborate. English had reminded me of how national unity is never far from the surface in Canada. Canadian participation in the war, he said, would have been extremely unpopular in Quebec. With a provincial election campaign underway, the Parti Québécois would have used a decision to participate in the war to argue that Quebec has no place in Canada because Quebec’s values are so different from those of the rest of the country. In English’s mind, the decision of the Chrétien government meant that the issue of the Iraq War would not be a part of the provincial election campaign. In fact, there had never been any reference to Quebec in all the discussions on Iraq in Cabinet or in any of my own talks with the prime minister. In this case, a positive contribution to national unity was the happy by-product of a decision taken for very different reasons, as was a substantial rise in Chrétien’s personal popularity in Quebec.
The decision not to go to war in Iraq was immediately popular in Canada but, surprising as it might seem from a perspective of a few years later, there was certainly no unanimity at the time. Those who purported to speak for the business community were fearful that the Canadian position on the war could have a damaging effect on Canadian trade with the United States. But it wasn’t just the business community that questioned the decision of the government. When the statue of Saddam Hussein fell in Baghdad, and the war seemed to have ended with an easy American victory, Stephen Harper, then the Leader of the Opposition in Parliament, who from the beginning had wanted Canada “to stand shoulder to shoulder” with the United States, was particularly critical of the government position. Some Liberal MPs, who had initially stood in the House of Commons and applauded the government’s principled decision on March 17, began to have different principles a few weeks later when they saw potential for a change in public opinion. When the situation in Iraq later became much more difficult for the Americans, they not surprisingly rediscovered their original principles. By the time of the election campaign of 2004, Stephen Harper was suggesting that he had never really wanted Canadian troops sent to Iraq in the first place; and by the campaign of 2006, he was pledging never to send Canadian troops to Iraq.
Only history will judge whether the war in Iraq was a colossal mistake, or whether it was an extraordinary act of boldness by a brave American president. Whatever the judgment of history on the war, there can be no doubt that the decision of the Canadian government not to participate in Iraq was a seminal event in Canadian foreign policy. I later attended bilateral meetings with leaders of many other countries who went out of their way to congratulate Chrétien for his courage, saying that while they had come to the same conclusion as we did about Iraq, they were not pressured by the same history, trading relationship, and proximity to the United States.
Those who are cynical about politics and who sometimes glibly say that all politicians are the same, and that it does not matter who is in office, should see the decision of the Canadian government not to participate in the war in Iraq as a lesson in the importance and relevance of the democratic process. Voting does matter. A different government with a different prime minister might have made a very different decision, and Canada’s reputation in the world would also be very different.
Excerpted from The Way It Works by Eddie Goldenberg. Copyright © 2007 by Eddie Goldenberg. Excerpted by permission of Douglas Gibson Books, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.