Twenty years ago, George Tenet, the head of the CIA, was telling President George W. Bush – at least in the Bush version – that it was “a slam dunk” that Iraq’s Saddam Hussein had a cache of weapons of mass destruction. Mr. Bush wanted to believe it, so he did, and proceeded with the Iraq invasion.
The CIA’s track record – Bay of Pigs, the Tet Offensive in Vietnam, the Iranian revolution, etc. – was hardly illustrious then. And it still isn’t. President Joe Biden, who arrives in Ottawa on Thursday to meet with a Prime Minister embroiled in an intelligence-gathering controversy, found that out in his effort to withdraw his forces from Afghanistan. Covert operatives told him there would be no problem, that the Afghan military could hold out well against Taliban insurgents. A fiasco followed, which saw the Taliban overrun Kabul in days, resulting in the Biden presidency’s biggest failure.
Twenty years ago, a Canadian government headed by a pragmatic lunch bucket prime minister was fortunately not convinced of any slam dunk. Weapons inspectors had found no WMDs in Iraq. It was one of the reasons why Jean Chrétien made his historic decision not to join the ”coalition of the willing.” It became something more akin to a coalition of the duped, including a mainstream media that had bought into the WMD hype.
As Mr. Chrétien put it, Iraq was “the first time ever that there was a war that the Brits and the Americans were involved [in] and Canada was not there.”
We were allies with the Americans in both world wars, in Korea, through the Cold War, in the Persian Gulf War of 1990-91, in Afghanistan and others.
For the most part, it is a proud record. But what of the record on staying out of war? On that, thanks largely but not only to the Iraq decision, a banner can be raised as well. The Iraq decision has come to have defining-moment status in our foreign policy history. It is seen as a landmark statement of sovereignty for a country so long subordinate to one great power, then the other.
In addition to Britain and the U.S., the Chrétien decision was opposed at home by then-opposition leader Stephen Harper, as well as by the business community. Mr. Bush and then-U. K. Prime Minister Tony Blair, who exerted even more pressure on Mr. Chrétien than the White House to join in, have lived to greatly regret their decisions. It has deeply tarnished their legacies, just as the Vietnam War damaged, though even more so, the legacy of Lyndon B. Johnson, who was naive enough to believe in the domino theory.
Prime Minister Lester Pearson warned LBJ in a speech in 1965 in Philadelphia against escalating that conflict. Rather than listen to our Nobel Peace Prize winner, LBJ lashed out at him. Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau warned the Reagan administration in its early years to de-escalate tensions with the Soviet Union. That brought on stern rebukes as well.
The Iraq War was not the only issue on which Ottawa stood up against the Bush administration. Prime Minister Paul Martin rejected pressure from Mr. Bush, made in a pointed speech in Halifax in 2004, to join the U.S. in its ballistic missile defence program. Heavy pressure was also coming from our spy agency to join that initiative. As Janice Gross Stein and Eugene Lang wrote in The Unexpected War, CSIS warned it would be disastrous for the Canada-U. S. relationship if we didn’t do so. The sleuths were dead wrong. It had no such effect.
On the U.S., the Iraq invasion has had a significant political impact. It has seen the traditionally hawkish Republican Party turn increasingly moderate on foreign policy. Donald Trump moved the party along an isolationist path to the point where many Republicans now are even balking at continued support for Ukraine against the Russian invasion.
The mainly futile war in Afghanistan contributed to the Republicans’ shift as well. Canada’s substantial role in that conflict was made, in part at least, to appease Washington for its absence from Iraq.
The Iraq War’s 20th anniversary bears bad memories for Joe Biden, who supported the invasion and came to regret it. When Mr. Biden sits down with Mr. Trudeau, he will likely make known his wish, as all presidents do, for larger military outlays.
But as U.S. Ambassador to Canada David Cohen has made clear, no great pressure will be brought to bear. Nor should it. Not if Mr. Biden has any idea how Canada’s record on war and peace stacks up by comparison.