Politics, Business & Culture in the Americas

Saying “No” to Bush on Iraq: A Defining Moment for Canada

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With March 20, 2013 representing the 10th anniversary of the U.S. invasion of Iraq, historians and journalists in both Canada and the United States have been assessing the wisdom of this historic decision.  The Iraq War, due to its enormous costs in human, financial and material terms, has long fallen out of favor with the American people and the political class.  Even the Republican Party has taken some distance from the major architects of the war—former President George W. Bush and former Vice President Dick Cheney.  Neither has addressed a Republican National Convention since 2004.

In Canada last week, former Prime Minister Jean Chrétien made all the media rounds and was strongly commended for refusing to go along with the so-called “Coalition of the Willing” in 2003 after the UN Security Council refused to sanction the U.S.-led invasion.  It was the first time that Canada said “no” to a U.S. president about to enter a war. It was a defining moment because Canada was a faithful U.S. ally in World War II, in the 1990-91 Persian Gulf War, the 1950-53 Korean War, and throughout the Cold War. Moreover, Canada was very supportive of the invasion of Afghanistan after September 11, 2001.

The decision to go to war in Iraq was never popular in Canada, despite the initial support of the opposition Conservative party leader, Stephen Harper.  The case for weapons of mass destruction and the links between Iraq’s dictator, Saddam Hussein, and Al Qaeda were never convincing to the general population.  The Canadian government of the day, led by Prime Minister Chrétien, had large-scale support for saying “no,” and this support was especially vocal in Chrétien’s home province of Québec. Even Conservative leader and current Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper later recanted, saying the war was a mistake.As both countries look back, there are some lessons that bear mentioning.  One is that Canada is a sovereign nation, and will primarily act according to its own national interests.  Canada, being a middle power, has always been a faithful advocate of UN and NATO backing in its military decisions.  It remains the preferred approach for Canadian involvement in military matters.  We have also been proponents of UN peacekeeping missions over the years and will likely continue.

A second lesson has to do with the effect of this war on U.S. interests and the important advantages of actively exploring both diplomacy and the use of multilateral organizations before engaging militarily.  The Afghan war had both UN and NATO backing, but the decision to go into Iraq, based on inconclusive evidence and with no UN support, did not.  This has since instilled a more prudent foreign policy and military approach on the part of the Obama Administration and its principal rival, the Republican Party.

Notice that in the last presidential campaign, Republican candidate Mitt Romney did not differ markedly from Obama on foreign policy matters. The Republican rhetoric is now closer to Obama’s cautious approach than it is to the Bush-Cheney actions of a decade ago.  There has been far less of a cry for “boots on the ground” in conflicts in countries like Libya, Mali, Yemen, and Syria. With the looming showdown on Iran’s nuclear intentions, we shall see how ingrained this new lesson has become.

Finally, former Prime Minister Chrétien claimed in the media last week that the decision to say “no” to the Bush Administration did not have lasting negative effects on the Canada–U.S. relationship. In October 2009, I was asked to be a moderator/interviewer during a George W. Bush visit to Montreal.  Mr. Chrétien, knowing this, arranged with me to have a phone conversation with Mr. Bush in order to welcome him to Canada.  The conversation was especially warm and cordial.  Clearly, both leaders continue to believe that they had acted according to what each believed was right, but they had moved on and had remained friends.  Just like Canada and the United States.


John Parisella is the former Québec delegate general in New York and currently a visiting professor at the University of Montréal’s International Relations Center. He is also a Member of the Board of Directors of The Montreal Council on Foreign Relations.

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