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What if We'd Gone to Iraq?

Harper said staying out was 'a serious mistake.' Was it?

Jeremy Keehn 19 Jan
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Where is Iraq in this election? If Canadian leaders had held a debate focused on foreign affairs, we might have expected them to make much of our relationship with the United States, and within that issue, of the still-burning question of the war in Iraq.

What we have, instead, is a few seconds of a Liberal attack ad, and a few seconds during the debates devoted to the claim that if Stephen Harper had been prime minister in the spring of 2003, our troops would now be on the ground in Iraq. The Liberals are almost certainly right about this, though they've been less forthcoming about the likelihood that had Paul Martin been prime minister, Canadian journalists would have checked in en masse at the Hotel Baghdad, too.

Save for muted criticism from the Conservatives and infrequent mentions in the media, Martin has received something of a pass on the Iraq war issue. His position is less firmly established than Harper's, for one thing, and a Liberal majority is unlikely, for another. But with a Conservative majority a distinct possibility, and a record of very strong statements from Harper on Iraq, the question bears asking: if we'd joined the "Coalition of the Willing" in 2003, where would we be now?

What follows is a thought experiment in "blowback"-the term coined by the CIA to describe the unintended consequences of a foreign misadventure. For the United States, the blowback from Iraq has been very real: lost lives, heavy expense and loss of stature abroad. According to several veteran foreign-policy observers, Canada would have shared in these consequences and seen any residual hopes on issues such as softwood lumber dashed, too. But as one of Canada's best-known peacekeepers points out, it's never as simple as "thank God we didn't go."

Economic casualties?

It is always a grisly equation to trade lives for market share, and the number of Canadian troops killed in Iraq by now would likely lie somewhere between that suffered by Poland (17) and Italy (27).

Still, perhaps the most ardently hoped-for benefit of Canada going to Iraq was that it would end our trade disputes, notably the softwood-lumber dispute and BSE-related border closures. The equation was simple: Canadian soldiers in Iraq = Canadian meat and wood in the U.S. But Desmond Morton, a historian at McGill, points out that that's not how the U.S. political system works. "American trade policy is not affected by this," he says. "American trade policy is made by effective lobbies in congress who couldn't give a flying fart about military policy. The president is not primarily involved in trade policy."

Although it's true that the Bush administration was responsible for imposing the softwood lumber tariffs, senior officials noted at the time that the administration was forced to do it to maintain support in congress for free trade. Further illustrating Morton's point: at the same time as the executive branch sought Canadian support in Iraq, members of both houses of the legislative branch were trying to raise the softwood tariff from 27 to 45 percent. By this rationale, were the Bush administration to lift the softwood lumber tariffs, it would pay a heavy political price from the lobbies that pushed for the tariffs in the first place.

As for the direct economic consequences of going to war in Iraq, two come to mind: how much it would have cost us to go, and whether Canada would have profited directly from the war.

The direct cost would not have been so high as one might think. Save for allowing officers on exchange with the U.S. to go to Iraq, and leaving ships on standby in the Gulf Region, Canada devoted few resources to Iraq, true, but that left it free to commit those resources to Afghanistan. Retired Major-General Lewis MacKenzie, one of Canada's best-known and best-regarded peacekeepers, argues that this was essentially a zero-sum situation. "We had probably emptied the shelves by committing to Afghanistan," he says.

In terms of direct economic opportunities, Canada was shut out of the first round of bidding for reconstruction contracts in Iraq, then saw the Bush administration reverse its ban on non-coalition bids after we pledged $240 million for rebuilding projects there. But in that business there are no guarantees. As USA Today reported after Bush's policy shift, "Bidding on such contracts is complex, costly and hard for foreign contractors to navigate."

Frayed friendships?

In their now famous letter to the Wall Street Journal supporting the war in Iraq, Stephen Harper and Stockwell Day highlighted the longstanding partnership between the United States and Canada. "For the first time in history, the Canadian government has not stood beside its key British and American allies in their time of need," they wrote (setting aside Canada's stance on the Vietnam War to make their point).

Loyalty is a difficult thing to measure. But the ill will encountered by some Canadians in the U.S. when Jean Chrétien announced our policy on the war does not seem to have lasted. Michael Byers, Canadian Research Chair in International Law and Politics at UBC, notes, "There's been no new and negative change in the relationship. We still have the largest trading relationship in the world."

Would going to war together have strengthened the relationship? Byers points to the numerous countries that initially supported the coalition, then left. "In a mature relationship with Washington," he says, "you get more respect by saying 'no' than by saying 'yes' and changing your mind a year or two or three years later." He stresses that a firm commitment would have strengthened goodwill between the two capital cities, but notes also, "You don't hear Australia being talked about in the United States. Political memories tend to be relatively short."

Morton takes a similar view. "When you've got one customer in the village, you want him smiling at you," he says. "That doesn't necessarily mean you've got to go to Iraq."

Foreign commitments

Canada has a long-established commitment to multilateral institutions such as the United Nations, and multilateral treaties such as the Kyoto accord. Allen Sens, a professor at the University of British Columbia, says that had we gone to Iraq, "There would be questions about Canada's commitment to multilateralism. [The war] was done outside the UN, it was done outside NATO." By asking Canada to join the coalition, the United States sought above all to borrow the credibility our support for such institutions has given us. Not going, Sens says, "preserved recognition of our independence from the United States."

And what of Iraq itself? Would a Canadian contribution have improved the lives of Iraqis? Canada's troop commitment, had we fully committed to Iraq, would likely have been on a par with the thousand-odd soldiers currently deployed in Afghanistan, and it's unlikely their impact would have been outsized. Asked if Canadians bring any special credibility to the table, Morton replies, "Only in their own heads." Canadians, in kind with Americans, he explains, like to believe that they are "exceptional, beloved around the world for their kindness and generosity. You can do some of that," he says. "You can build a school. But who smashed it yesterday?"

The warrior's honour?

There is a deeper argument to be made regarding the effects of Canadian participation, however. This argument suggests that, having gone to war in Iraq, Canadians could feel justifiably satisfied at having contributed to an ongoing moral project with which we have long been engaged-of intervening where tyranny prevails. It was from this moral vantage that moderate voices such as Michael Ignatieff and Salman Rushdie supported the war, and on this declared moral high ground that the Bush administration has belatedly pitched its tent.

It was also from this ground that Maj.-Gen. MacKenzie set off a small firestorm in the Toronto Star letters section last week by writing of his frustration at seeing Canadians-and Jean Chrétien, in particular-gloat over "our non-official participation in the war and ongoing crisis in Iraq." The war, MacKenzie wrote, by removing Saddam Hussein from power, had saved the lives of hundreds of thousands of Iraqis. He put the figure at 100,000 per year, based on reports submitted by human-rights groups at Saddam's trial and elsewhere. "I have argued more than once," MacKenzie says, "that from the point of view of lives saved and regime change, this was a worthwhile undertaking." The first response to his letter in the Star rebutted this perspective with an often-made, but powerful critique: why Iraq and not Zimbabwe? MacKenzie acknowledges that the United States' motivations were muddled, but believes that Iraqis have come out ahead.

The ambiguity of how far ahead, in terms of lives saved, the Iraqis are, and how significant the taint of mixed motives is, shake the moral argument, to be sure. And Iraqis are far from in the clear: it is still possible that, having planned and prosecuted the war as poorly as it rallied support for it, the United States will leave a regime as bad or worse than Saddam's in its wake.

Attracting terror?

Given the uncertain reward, Canadians' relief that we did not join the coalition seems justified, even more so when one factors in the uncertain risks, both domestic and foreign, that we would have assumed in going to Iraq. The Madrid train bombings, as well as the bombing of the Australian embassy in Jakarta, Indonesia, both in 2004, serve as cautionary examples. Allen Sens doesn't believe Canada would have been targeted, given our distance from the major nodes of Islamist terrorist organizations, but Michael Byers is more cautious. "It's probably a coincidence, but not necessarily a coincidence," he says, "that Canada hasn't had a terrorist attack yet."

Both Sens and Byers stress that the evaluation comes down, at base, to whether it would have been worth placing Canadian soldiers in harm's way. "Most importantly," Sens says, "we did not put the lives of our servicepeople at risk for a conflict that, at the end of the day, may not have been strategically sound." There is simply no way of knowing how many soldiers might have died, however willing soldiers like MacKenzie may have been to take on that risk. Byers believes we were fortunate not to have to make this kind of risk/reward calculation. "Jean Chrétien made the right decision and Canadian soldiers did not die as a result," he says.

What will Stephen do?

All of which leads to the take-to-the-polls question: how might a Conservative majority led by Stephen Harper approach a similar situation should it arise in the future? Like what has come before, the question is primarily a thought experiment. Harper has distanced himself from the bold statements he made as opposition leader, pledging last month that he would not send troops to Iraq if he won the election. Given a majority, however, Harper would have the power to ignore this pledge if he wished. Says Sens, "There's nothing preventing the government of the day from making the decision to go to war."

Desmond Morton says Harper will face pressure from the United States to close ranks. "He'll be under great stress," Morton says. "We know how badly Martin managed, and Harper...." His voice trails off and he launches into an anecdote instead:

"I sat on a board with him once, and I was struck by the fact that he never cracked a smile over all the nonsense that went on. That alarmed me. The one saving grace, I believe, in politicians I don't like is that they have a sense of humour. Brian [Mulroney] did, certainly. Sometimes it was cruel, but he had a sense of humour, and he had a sense of humanity. I wish I believed this guy does. Those are not things you can ask people in a debate, or even expect them to reveal."

Jeremy Keehn edits the Field Notes section at The Walrus.  [Tyee]

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