Does any of this sound familiar? A U.S. president with an image as a vacillator on domestic issues declares that Iraq’s Saddam Hussein, the world’s best-known reigning despot, is misbehaving. The American leader, buoyed by new popularity at home as a result, prepares for decisive action against Iraq, and begins searching for allies abroad. Canada’s Prime Minister, told of those actions in advance, immediately offers his government’s backing, without holding a parliamentary debate or informing more than a handful of members of his own party.
Say hello, Brian Mulroney—and Jean Chrétien, who last week behaved almost exactly the way he said Mulroney shouldn’t have during the buildup to the 1991 Gulf War.
Then, as leader of Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition, Chrétien waffled spectacularly on the question of what role Canada should play in the Gulf—first suggesting it butt out of any UN mission, and then saying it should take part, but withdraw if any violence broke out. The fact that the Americans were leading anti-Iraq efforts, Chrétien said, should not matter, because “the national interests of Canada are very different from the national interests of the United States.” His foreign affairs critic, Lloyd Axworthy, suggested that Canada should both pressure the United States and act on its own, if need be, to “maintain lines of communication” with Saddam before any attack took place on Iraq.
But political posturing, as any student of realpolitik knows, is always more easily conducted from the opposition benches. So last
week, one election and 5 V2 years later, it was Chrétien and Axworthy, now foreign affairs minister, who were being advised by—and agreeing with—the truculent, anti-Saddam administration of Bill Clinton. The American bombing attack, in fact, did not even cause Chrétien to budge from a golf vacation in Florida. Instead, he issued a statement through his office in which he said that the action was a “moderate” and “necessary” step. And, once again, there was no public debate in Parliament—although Axworthy did telephone the Bloc Québécois and Reform parties in advance. He informed Reform’s Bob Mills at 7 a.m. on Tuesday that what he pointedly described as “the PM’s position” would be announced later that morning.
Why the apparent U-turn in Liberal policy? After all, the 1991 attack on Iraq was a far more black-and-white situation: it took place after Iraq had invaded a neighboring country and ignored repeated warnings to withdraw. This time, the legal justification was far less clear-cut, while the timing, during an election campaign, was all too convenient. But, Chrétien advisers argue, the entire basis of the debate is different now. In 1991, the issue was whether Canada would participate in a military operation, and thereby put Canadian lives at risk. This time, the only Canadians directly involved are six members of the military, three in a Baghdad-based UN arms control verification team and three others helping to patrol Kuwait’s border.
That is not all that has changed. As Clinton wages his presidential campaign, the attack on Iraq is almost certain to help him—unless widespread condemnation from other countries creates the impression that he made the decision for strictly partisan purposes. Canada, by quickly offering public support, helps dispel that impression. Privately, Chrétien advisers say they fully expect Clinton’s people to remember that they owe the Canadians one if the President is re-elected. And, suggests a government adviser on foreign affairs, “it would be wrong to presume that no other country is acting for partisan reasons.”
The other big difference is in Chrétien himself. In January, 1991, he was a newly minted and largely untested leader. He presided uncertainly over a party whose MPs owed him nothing. His attempt to seek the middle ground—somewhere between condemning and condoning action against Iraq—was classic Chrétien strategy, but poorly executed. His long-standing lack of interest in international affairs showed, as did his lack of control over the party. MPs scattered in every direction on the issue, ranging from sharp criticism of military action by Axworthy and left-wing MP Warren Allmand on one side, to full support by ex-leader John Turner on the other.
As well, Chrétien has discovered the importance of making nice with the White House. Before becoming prime minister, he often said contemptuously that, unlike Mulroney, he would not be found “fishing with the president” True, but in the summer of 1995, he and Clinton went golfing. After Chrétien’s election in October, 1993, his aides made much of the fact that, in his first official letter to Clinton, he crossed out the part where an aide had written “Dear Bill,” and instead wrote “Dear Mr. President” In office, he has learned one of the most critical lessons for a prime minister: the important thing is not what you call an American president but whether, when you need him, he will call you back.
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