Feb. 23, 2003
Chrétien wise in his position on Iraq

GRAHAM FRASER

OTTAWA—Jean Chrétien has often been criticized for his lack of strategic sense. He has often seemed allergic to planning, a clear-the-inbox manager disdainful of long-term thinking. This insouciance led to the near-disaster of the 1995 Quebec referendum and the unseemly scuttle afterward to embrace positions he had previously rejected.

Some of his critics have seen his current posture on Iraq in similar terms. The opposition and their allies in the press have been jumping on every statement, holding it to a crude standard: is Canada going to war? Yes or no? Absolutely or never?

While avoiding clarity like a toxic tar pit, Chrétien has nevertheless been consistent, occasionally shifting emphasis but not direction. Canada has been determined to keep all options open as long as possible, supporting coercive diplomacy to increase the pressure on Saddam Hussein on the one hand, and reinforcing a multilateral approach through the United Nations on the other.

It is an approach that is solidly in the Liberal tradition of Mackenzie King and Lester Pearson.

There have been occasional slips and slides toward being dangerously comprehensible — John McCallum saying Canada may join the U.S. and Chrétien saying it would not join a coalition of the willing — but by and large, Chrétien has kept his cards close to his chest and preserved room to manoeuvre.

In doing so, he has reflected the deep anxiety and considerable ambiguity in the country and the Liberal caucus.

The EKOS poll published yesterday shows Canadians would support a war on Iraq only with Security Council support, are deeply worried about the consequences of such a war, and are uneasy about U.S. power.

But this sense of worry about the dangers of U.S. unilateralism is also shared by many in Canada's elite. In private, corporate leaders, bank presidents, and senior government officials all express more worries about the dangerously destructive effect of an angry America on the rampage and the potential blowback from levelling Baghdad than about the threat that Saddam Hussein represents.

In Canada, there has been a debate — in Parliament, on the editorial pages and airwaves, and on the streets — and it has been healthy. One of the reasons for the bitterness and incomprehension in the United States is there has been so little debate.

As Senator Robert Byrd said ten days ago, there has been an ominous political silence on the issue of this Iraq war. "We stand passively mute in the United States Senate, paralyzed by our own uncertainty, seemingly stunned by the sheer turmoil of events."

Byrd pointed out that the U.S. is about to test "a revolutionary doctrine applied in an extraordinary way at an unfortunate time": the doctrine of pre-emption, the idea that one nation can attack another which is not imminently threatening but may be threatening in the future, a radical twist on the idea of self-defence.

What Byrd did not spell out was that it was his fellow Democrats who have backed away from that debate.

Chastened by last fall's mid-term election results, Democrats remember 1990, when the chairman of the Senate defence committee, Senator Sam Nunn, influenced by Colin Powell, then chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, voted against the Gulf War — and saw his presidential ambitions vaporize.

Now, the U.S. has been taken aback when the rest of the world has engaged in the debate that the Democrats ducked this time. This bafflement is now expressed in puerile insults toward the French.

(President Jacques Chirac has reacted with an equally petulant snit directed at the Eastern European countries that favour the U.S. position.)

American rage at the French has even seeped into the parallel universe of West Wing, with President Bartlett venting his rage at his daughter's arrogant French aristocrat boyfriend and calling the French "poncey hairdressers" for being unco-operative as he tries to save a fictional African people from genocide.

The Bush administration, which has encouraged this childish attitude toward the French, has not made it easier for those who agree that Saddam Hussein is a dangerous man. Its dismissal of Kyoto and the International Criminal Court has been dismaying, its evidence of links between Iraq and Al Qaeda flimsy, and its approach to those who disagree insulting. Moreover, the American track record in rebuilding societies that it has destroyed from 30,000 feet (Bush actually budgeted zero dollars for Afghanistan reconstruction) has not inspired confidence that the aftermath to this destruction will be different.

Chrétien has been wise to keep his distance, both from the Americans and the French.

Ambiguity is an underrated virtue.


Graham Fraser is a national affairs writer. His column will return in two weeks.

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