9.05.2010

we missed the ottawa-baghdad train, now break the chain and let them stay

Jeffrey Simpson's column, "We’re glad we missed the Ottawa-Baghdad train," is a bracing reminder of recent history. Canada easily could have been in Iraq, not only "holding the bully's coat" (thank you Linda McQuaig) but exercising its own occupying muscles, as it is in Afghanistan.

Canada could have been wasting its own young lives, wasting its resources, killing yet more people who have done Canada no harm, all in the service of KBR, Bechtel and the rest of the US corporate empire. But Jean Chrétien said no - and the overwhelming majority of Canadians now understand that that was the correct decision. Even Stephen Harper has admitted that the war in Iraq was "absolutely an error".

Since Canada didn't fight in Iraq, and since most Canadians agree that was the right thing to do, doesn't it follow that we should give asylum to others who came to the same conclusion? Canada has been down this road before, to the tune of 50,000 Vietnam War resisters. Despite the persistent lies of detractors, the truth is about 10,000 of those were not drafted, but volunteered for service, then deserted.

This is an excellent column by Jeffrey Simpson, but I must again point out - and we all must continue to point out, all the time - that the US occupation of Iraq has not ended. More than 50,000 US troops and at least another 75,000 private mercenaries (also funded by US taxpayers) remain there. Hell, fresh troops are still deploying!

Simpson refers to the Iraq War's "intellectual supporters in Canada". One prime intellectual Canadian supporter was still in the US, using his intellect, writing talent and position with The New York Times to advance the cause of the Bush administration: Michael Ignatieff.
The haze of collective memory shrouds how many Canadians wanted this country to join the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003.

Newspaper archives, however, do not lie nor do the recollections of those in the maelstrom of that debate. The decision was, in public opinion at least, a near-run thing.

Public opinion polls showed the country split, with a majority in Quebec opposed to participation, and a majority elsewhere in favour. The National Post beat the drum of war in every single issue. As did, of course, the Sun chain, most of the writers at this newspaper, the AM Radio right-wingers, the Canadian Alliance (including a chap named Stephen Harper), a lot of business people who worried about relations with the United States, a bunch of senior Liberals, and plenty of citizens who believed that the right thing to do after 9/11 was to stand by our U.S. ally, take out Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, put democracy in place in Baghdad, help make Israel safer and respond resolutely to terror and the associated threat of chemical, biological and maybe nuclear weapons in Iraq.

If Canada had had a different government, or even a Liberal prime minister other than Jean Chrétien, we might have been there, perhaps not on the front lines but somewhere in what the U.S. defence secretary called the “coalition of the willing.” Fortunately, Canada remained unwilling to lend its name or treasure to the war. It was an intelligent decision made in the face of severe domestic opposition, especially in English-speaking Canada.

The method by which Mr. Chrétien made his momentous announcement – responding to a planted question in the House of Commons – was not worthy of the occasion or the obligation one might have thought we owed our traditional friends and allies for a considered, lengthy explanation. But that kind of explanation was not Mr. Chrétien’s style or his instinct. Make a decision. Get it out there fast. Get on with business.

In the end, the method of conveying the decision counted for far less than the profoundly correct decision, given the terrible losses in personnel, money and reputation the U.S. suffered in Iraq. Politically, Mr. Chrétien’s reputation was enhanced, in contrast to that of Tony Blair, whose reputation never recovered from British participation.

Matters in Iraq have finally turned out to be something better than had been feared three years ago, but far worse than all those fanciful scenarios that danced in the heads of the Bush-Cheney administration and its intellectual supporters in Canada.

For Barack Obama, the judgment on his decision to withdraw begins now and will depend on whether Iraq can remain united, avoid sectarian warfare and endemic violence while somehow managing to govern itself.

Who really knows how many Iraqis died in the war? The figure is well in excess of 100,000. As for the Americans, more than 4,400 were killed and more than 30,000 wounded. The country spent about three-quarters of a trillion dollars, at a time of increasing deficits. The Bush administration cut taxes, went to war, and kicked the bill down the road, a decision of gross irresponsibility for which Americans are paying today.

There were no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, as United Nations inspector Hans Blix kept saying. But his finding was not what the Bush-Cheney crowd wanted to hear. They had started planning for war shortly after 9/11, even though the experts on al-Qaeda told them that Saddam Hussein and al-Qaeda were mortal enemies.

Saddam was unquestionably a gruesome leader of the kind the Arab world has periodically known. But he was being contained by a variety of measures that could have been sustained at a pittance by way of cost. He was Iran’s sworn enemy, having fought a bloody war against that country. His relations with Syria were frigid. He had created his own diplomatic isolation, booming rhetoric notwithstanding. His departure created a power vacuum into which the Shiites of Iraq have stepped, with the concomitant result that Shia Iran’s influence has grown.

From geostrategic, reputational, economic and straight political perspectives, the invasion was a mistake. We can only be thankful that Canada took no part, although to repeat: It was a near-run thing in public opinion.

10 comments:

Snallygaster said...

I don't remember public support for joining the (Iraq) war being quite what Simpson claims it was. I don't think there was ever a clear majority of support anywhere outside Alberta, and I'm sure that nationally, a solid majority opposed. I do remember the Globe & Mail doing everything possible to convince Canadians otherwise, though. Not to mention the unremitting howls of outrage from the press that Chretien didn't immediately volunteer unconditional Canadian support for whatever Bush wanted to do. But I don't think they (or I) ever doubted that he'd sign up for the war in the end. It's so rare for Canada not to heed the call up from the US, and Chretien of all people certainly wasn't expected to break that mold. I think Simpson might be too kind to Chretien's memory; it's not merely "a different government, or even a Liberal prime minister other than Jean Chrétien" who could have been counted on to join the US; I'm pretty certain Chretien himself would have been all too happy to do so if the war call hadn't come just when it did. Fortunately for Canadians, that just happened to be during the final, lame-duck year of Chretien's government before his planned retirement. The year when Chretien apparently went insane, rejected everything he had stood for, and delivered the first year of responsible government this country has seen since Trudeau.
Anyway, I hope Canadians understand that articles like this are not an excuse to pat ourselves on the backs for showing better sense than the Americans, but a reminder of how remarkable it is for us to do so.

L-girl said...

I do remember the Globe & Mail doing everything possible to convince Canadians otherwise, though.

Judging from their constant cheerleading for the Afghanistan war, I can well imagine.

Fortunately for Canadians, that just happened to be during the final, lame-duck year of Chretien's government before his planned retirement. The year when Chretien apparently went insane, rejected everything he had stood for, and delivered the first year of responsible government this country has seen since Trudeau.

Yes, my Canadian friends have mentioned many times fighting against the Chretien govt every step of the way, then at the very end - same-sex marriage, no Iraq War, all this good stuff at once.

Anyway, I hope Canadians understand that articles like this are not an excuse to pat ourselves on the backs for showing better sense than the Americans, but a reminder of how remarkable it is for us to do so.

Well, that depends on how those Canadians feel and what they believe about their country. Regardless, I believe Canadians can justly pat themselves on the back for not supporting the Iraq War. We should always be proud to choose peace.

L-girl said...

The US has been involved in dozens of military adventures since Vietnam, and Canada has not joined them for any that I am aware of, with the obvious exception of Afghanistan. I'm not saying Canada doesn't follow and support US policy in other ways, but there is a very clear difference between the two countries' use of the military.

Nitangae said...

It was the right thing to do - and, though I am also not a great Chretien fan, in Chretien's favour I will also mention that he did suggest - to much criticism - that 9-11 was another reminder to Canadians to turn our eyes to massive global inequalities and the resentments caused by these inequalities.

Blair, by contrast, has decided that now is the time to drum up support for an attack on Iran. He manages almost to be as odious in retirement as he was in office.

L-girl said...

Blair, that pig. Apparently his memoirs say Canada should stick close to US policy - and a great big ass-lick to the USA is omitted from the UK version of his book: link.

Snallygaster said...

Don't forget the first Iraq (ie Persian Gulf) war. We weren't invited to any of the others, so I don't think we can take credit for staying out of them.
Admittedly, that's only(!) two American-led wars since Vietnam, but I was thinking mainly of the tendency to rush to apply military force in general, as in Canada's "peacekeeping" missions, Bosnia/Kosovo, Haiti, etc. I don't think any of these have been as shameful as most of the military escapades the US has been involved in during the same period, but the Canadian military couldn't be much more active than they've been. And the troops that would have gone to Iraq just went to Afghanistan instead. Canadians should be proud of choosing peace, but at the same time, choosing peace has to be more than simply lacking the capability to start big wars. If Canadians want to be on the right side of the moral balance sheet, they have to start being a lot tougher on the military.

L-girl said...

And the troops that would have gone to Iraq just went to Afghanistan instead.

I oppose Canada's involvement in Afghanistan, but I find this statement nonsensical and hollow. If we say that, we can say anything. The fact is Canada stayed out of Iraq.

Canadians should be proud of choosing peace, but at the same time, choosing peace has to be more than simply lacking the capability to start big wars. If Canadians want to be on the right side of the moral balance sheet, they have to start being a lot tougher on the military.

I think most Canadians wouldn't understand what you are talking about. I think most people buy the idea that Canada's military was (and many believe is) used for peacekeeping. They don't put quotes around it.

No matter whether we regard peacekeeping as a myth or a reality, there is a huge difference between what Canada has done with its military and what the US continues to do.

It's not "only two" US-led wars that Canada "missed" - it's a long list of invasions and overthrows. And when you say "lack the capability" to start a big war, that capability is not found in nature, it's the consequence of budget decisions and national priorities over decades and decades. The US has that capability because it is driven by its military industry, where Canada is not.

I understand what you're saying in terms of Canadians and choosing peace, and I wish it would be so. But I think the point would be utterly lost on most Canadians - in much the same way that most Americans do not understand that their country has been at continuous war for the past 60 years. It's not part of the national consciousness, however crazy that may seem from the outside.

redsock said...

It's not "only two" US-led wars that Canada "missed" - it's a long list of invasions and overthrows.

Right now, the US is conducting military operations in 75 countries:

"President Obama has secretly sanctioned a huge increase in the number of US special forces carrying out search-and-destroy missions against al-Qaeda around the world. The dramatic expansion in the use of special forces, which in their global span go far beyond the covert missions authorized by George W. Bush ..."

Snallygaster said...

Well I think we're basically in agreement; I just have a tendency to get bogged down in arguing the details from time to time. I guess I'll close by saying I *am* proud that unlike the US, Canada is not a war-centred country. But as Simpson's article reminds us, that pride is a fragile thing. I want Canadians to remember that, so that we don't lose it.
Thanks for your responses.

L-girl said...

Thank you - and I agree that we agree. :)

I do think Canada differs from the US in many significant ways, but I know that "not the US" is not sufficient. It sets the bar way too low!

Thanks for stopping by.