IN AUGUST, 1990, during the first days of the Persian Gulf crisis, Brian Mulroney flew to Washington for a private dinner with the first President Bush in the family dining room of the White House.
The Prime Minister was accompanied only by his chief of staff Stanley Hartt. The President was joined only by his wife, Barbara, his national security adviser Brent Scowcroft, and the deputy secretary of state, Larry Eagleburger. Bush had the CIA reports—from satellite shots to telephone intercepts—confirming the Iraqi occupation of Kuwait. Already, the President had vowed that “this will not stand.” But he didn’t want the United States to go it alone, and asked Mulroney for his advice, and Canada’s support, in building a coalition to evict Saddam Hussein.
“First of all, George,” Mulroney said, “you’ve got to get a resolution from the United Nations,” authorizing use of force if necessary, as cover for what would become Operation Desert Storm, and as a prerequisite for Canadian participation in it. “Canada is a reliable ally,” Mulroney added. “But I can’t ask Canadians to support this unless it’s ratified by the Security Council.” Mulroney also warned Bush that British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher could not be seen as leading the coalition effort in Europe. “If you want everybody onside,” he told Bush, “it can’t appear as if Margaret is rallying support in Europe. You’ve got to get François Mitterrand on board.”
“How would you suggest I do that?” Bush asked.
“Call him first thing in the morning. Paris time.”
“OK,” Bush told Scowcroft, “have them wake me at 3 a.m.”
Because Bush went out of his way to court France’s president, a notoriously difficult ally stayed the course as a leader of the coalition in Europe and the Frenchspeaking world. There are three points of historical continuity to this. First, Canada’s preferred port in an international storm is
the UN, going back half a century to the Korean War. Military intervention may occur under U.S. leadership, but we prefer it under the flag of the UN. For Canada, it’s not only a question of moral legitimacy, it’s a matter of not being perceived as vassals of the Americans.
Second, there is Canada’s historic role as honest broker, as a bridge between America and Europe. This Canadian vocation began even before the First World War. In 1911, Prime Minister Robert
Borden told a New York audience of “the duty of Canada to become more and more of a bond of goodwill between this Great Republic and our Empire.”
And third, since Borden’s time, the decision of going to war, and responsibility for its conduct, ultimately falls on the shoulders of the prime minister alone. Borden in the First World War, Mackenzie King in the Second, Louis St. Laurent in Korea, Mulroney in the Persian Gulf War, and Jean Chrétien in the war on terrorism, have all borne the lonely burden of putting Canadians in harm’s way.
Now the second President Bush is evidently determined to take the Road to Baghdad—not a Hope and Crosby movie, but a sequel to his father’s war. As before, our prime minister has asked a president to make the case at the United Nations, and seek a Security Council resolution authorizing the use of force. As before, the American intent is to evict Saddam Hussein, this time from his own country rather than an occupied one. Like his father before him, Bush can count on the British prime minister, and has actively courted the president of France. Even the Italian prime minister got invited to Camp David for the weekend, while the Canadian PM got invited to Detroit. In the real West Wing, these things happen for a reason.
What is our policy and what is our purpose? If we stand aside, we will stand apart from the Americans and British, our closest allies with whom we have made common cause in most military campaigns of the last century. If we join with them, we may be asking our military, whose capacity has been degraded by successive governments, to undertake a mission for which they are ill-equipped.
Parliament may debate the Iraqi question. Cabinet may discuss it from every angle, including any collateral damage to the world’s most important commercial relationship if we don’t support the Americans. But in the end, Canada’s policy, and Canadian lives, depend on the Prime Minister. Surrounded by advisers, he is completely alone. Iifl
Whether to join the U.S. on the Road to Baghdad is a question fraught with problems-no matter which way the PM leans
Author and columnist L. Ian MacDonald, a former chief speech writer to Mulroney, also served as head of public affairs at the Canadian Embassy in Washington. He is the new editor of Policy Options, the magazine of the Institute for Research on Public Policy.
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