Skip to main content
Open this photo in gallery:

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau speaks with U.S. President Donald Trump during the G20 Summit in Osaka, Japan, on June 29, 2019.erin schaff/The New York Times News Service

The reporter asked Jens Stoltenberg, “Should Iran retaliate in a way that makes the United States trigger Article 5, what would NATO’s response be then?”

NATO’s Secretary-General refused to speculate. And the chances of the U.S. asking their North Atlantic Treaty Organization allies to invoke the article, which says an attack on one member is an attack on all, are low, at least for the moment.

But that people are even asking the question, only three days after the Americans struck down Iran’s top military commander, General Qassem Soleimani, speaks to how volatile the world has become.

It speaks as well to why Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has gone silent. All options for Canada are bad options, right now. The Prime Minister may believe the best strategy is to say little in public and hope for the best.

But that strategy will become less tenable by the day or even the hour. A letter that surfaced Monday suggesting that U.S. forces might be preparing to withdraw from Iraq could lead to the swift end of Canada’s training mission in that country, although the Pentagon disavowed the letter. Things are, to put it gently, fluid.

Since ordering the strike on Gen. Soleimani, Donald Trump has tweeted one outrage after another. The American President threatened to bomb Iranian cultural sites if Iran retaliates, which would violate international law, as a spokesman for British Prime Minister Boris Johnson pointed out.

Mr. Trump also threatened economic sanctions if the Iraqi government expelled American forces. There may not be one other country in the world that would join the U.S. in imposing such sanctions. The Iraqi people have suffered enough.

And the President airily proclaimed that his tweets were all Congress was entitled to by way of consultation before he ordered any future military action against Iran.

“War powers reside in the Congress," the House foreign affairs committee tweeted back. “You’re not a dictator.”

With the President acting – and tweeting – so wildly, and with the Senate impeachment hearings imminent, fear is growing that if the Iranians strike back hard against the United States, Mr. Trump will ask his NATO allies to invoke Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty, dragging the entire alliance into a war with Iran.

The other 28 members of NATO, who are not even trying to hide their alarm over the escalating crisis, would not welcome such a request. Mr. Trump has long been a critic of the alliance. This would be one way to destroy it.

There is one practical reason Article 5 is not likely to come into play, and that reason is Article 6, which, in essence, specifies that an attack must take place within the territory of a NATO state. (It’s a matter of debate whether a cyber attack by Iran against the U.S. or Europe would qualify.)

“No one knows how the Iranians will respond, but I don’t think they would attack the U.S. homeland,” said Roland Paris, a specialist in international relations at the University of Ottawa and former foreign policy adviser to Mr. Trudeau. “The regime is dastardly but not suicidal.”

Through all of this, Mr. Trudeau, who returned Sunday from his Christmas vacation in Costa Rica, has been keeping a very low profile, which is probably the best approach, short term.

Canada’s highest priority is to secure American ratification of the revised North American trade agreement. This is no time to anger the Trump administration.

But it’s a safe bet that most Canadians want nothing to do with any escalation of violence in the Middle East, especially one led by the United States, especially under this President. In the short term, press releases urging restraint while ministers work the phones is the best approach.

Nonetheless, if the United States becomes embroiled in something approaching war, however asymmetrical, with Iran, or if U.S. forces truly are preparing to leave Iraq, creating a power vacuum, then once again chaos will grip the Middle East, forcing Ottawa to navigate between U.S. demands for solidarity and the demands of Canadian citizens to keep this country out of quagmires.

Mr. Trudeau has adopted a lower profile during his second, minority, government. But if things hit the fan again in Iran and Iraq, the Canadian people will expect him to lead.

Follow related authors and topics

Authors and topics you follow will be added to your personal news feed in Following.

Interact with The Globe