Column

WHAT’S GOING ON HERE?

Things are so topsy-turvy that even Jean Chrétien is acting like a statesman

Peter C. Newman March 31 2003
Column

WHAT’S GOING ON HERE?

Things are so topsy-turvy that even Jean Chrétien is acting like a statesman

Peter C. Newman March 31 2003

WHAT’S GOING ON HERE?

Things are so topsy-turvy that even Jean Chrétien is acting like a statesman

Column

PETER C. NEWMAN

WITHOUT WARNING, the world has turned upside down.

Landlocked Switzerland wins ocean racing’s top honour; Newfoundland boasts Canada’s fastest-growing economy; Germany refuses to fight a war; and most unbelievable of all, Jean Chrétien behaves like a statesman.

During his decade in office, our eternal Prime Minister has distinguished himself by following Napoleon’s famous dictum that you never interfere with the enemy when he is in the process of destroying himself. That notion has shaped Canadian politics since Chrétien took over in 1993 by beating a discredited Tory party led by that giddy cellist, Kim Campbell, whose surest instinct was for her own jugular.

Ever since, the Opposition parties have insisted on tearing themselves apart, as if their only function was to maintain the Liberals in office. The PM has taken advantage of the situation by refusing to rock the boat. His operational code was reduced to getting to his office on time by running up the Commons stairs, appointing a few more pals to the Senate and mouthing announcements that nobody could decipher. Thus, three majority mandates.

That predictable routine was interrupted last week, when Chrétien officially confirmed his brave and sensible policy of withholding Canada’s support for war with Iraq. Before we stand up and cheer for our clever Prime Minister, it should be noted that he is only supporting the view of the majority of Canadians who recognize George W. Bush’s vendetta with Saddam Hussein as being based on personal spite instead of common sense.

At the same time, for any Canadian PM to deliberately flaunt the expressed wishes of an American president is never easy. The retaliatory potential of a White House occupant is enormous. Nothing more extravagant than tightening U.S.-Canada border restrictions to the same extremes as those applied at America’s southern fron-

tier with Mexico could push Canada’s economy into chaos.

During most of this continent’s recent history, Americans have treated Canadians as if we lived in their attic, which of course we do. Most house owners dismiss attics as taken-for-granted storage spaces somewhere up there, occasionally useful but a topic of concern only if they become the source of strange noises. They then grab a baseball bat and climb up to investigate. To switch metaphors, Canadians living next to the U.S. have found the experience a bit like being the spouse in an old-fashioned marriage, with the Yankee husband insisting: “Hey babe, if you do exactly what I want, we’ll have a really good time!” Not in Iraq we won’t.

In the past, with only two main exceptions, Canadian prime ministers have jumped into line behind the wishes of Canada’s dominant “parent” societies. One dramatic example of this subservience came when then Opposition Leader Sir Wilfrid Laurier backed the government in entering the First World War in support of imperial Britain with the cry: “When the call comes, our answer goes at once ... ‘Ready, aye, ready’.”

When our political enforcers shifted from 10 Downing Street to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, with its occupant becoming Canada’s Godfather, we went along with most presidential global adventures, except the Vietnam War. The other significant time we parted company with the Yanks was over our drive to impose economic sanctions on apartheid South Africa, a policy we initiated and successfully defended despite American objections. (It should be noted that even

For any Canadian prime minister to deliberately flaunt the expressed wishes of an American president is never easy

if Prime Ministers Lester Pearson and Pierre Trudeau objected to the Vietnam War, that didn’t stop a Canadian factory from manufacturing and selling Americans the deadly, jungle-clearing herbicide Agent Orange, as well as the napalm that was used in Vietnam’s killing fields. (U.S. bomber pilots did their target practice runs over Saskatchewan and Alberta.)

This time, not only did Chrétien refuse to jump behind Washington’s battle wagon, but he also withheld his sympathy for the intransigent position ofjacques Chirac. The French President set out to veto any UN resolution, except perhaps a vote of confidence in the French Republic’s some 450 varieties of cheeses.

At the same time, the Chrétien government was the first to propose the UN compromise resolution for a cooling-off period, which later was borrowed (without credit) by Tony Blair, and even briefly won reluctant approval of Chirac, who supported an initiative squarely based on Canada’s idea, first making certain that it was too late to have it adopted. (As a long-time admirer of Canada’s foreign service, I was proud to witness our UN Ambassador Paul Heinbecker’s dignified and articulate behindthe-scenes manoeuvring on behalf of the Canadian resolution during the Security Council’s almost comical attempts to square their policy circles.)

What makes Chretien’s stand particularly praiseworthy is that he realized war with Iraq was not an issue to which he could apply his customary and often lackadaisical art of pragmatic compromise. Had he backed the Bush initiative, we would have had to send troops to the battlefields, as we did in 1991 during the first Saddam war. Since we can’t even get our naval helicopters to take off and land safely, this doesn’t seem like much leverage. But we certainly would have been honour bound to dispatch at least a token force. (Poland, which supports Washington’s bellicose policies, last week dispatched precisely 200 soldiers to humble the Butcher of Baghdad.)

What Chrétien realized is that when it comes to issues of the life and death of your soldiers, any risk has to be weighed more carefully than the usual government policies. In this instance, he made precisely the right judgment—and I congratulate him.

Peter C. Newman’s column appears monthly. pnewman@macleans.ca