Chrétien has moved to appease both hawks and doves,
Chrétien has moved to appease both hawks and doves,
JEAN CHRÉTIEN had a tough selling job last week. With the U.S. champing at the bit to get on with the dirty work of forcing out Saddam Hussein and his regime, the Prime Minister travelled to Chicago to tell Americans just what the world thinks of them. He came as a friend, he explained—and friends speak the truth, no matter how unpleasant. "Great strength is not always perceived by others as benign," Chrétien bluntly informed the Chicago Council on Foreign Relations. "Not everyone around the world is prepared to take the word of the United States on faith." Most of all, he added, the world is not ready to go war against Iraq. Not as long as there is hope that United Nations weapons inspectors can achieve through peaceful means what the U.S. appears to believe can only be achieved through brutal force—disarming Iraq of chemical, biological and nuclear weapons technology.
It's unlikely Chrétien changed many minds. But his message was also intended for a home audience. Despite months of waffling about what part if any Canada might play in a U.S.-led "coalition of the willing"—without a specific UN mandate—there are growing Canadian fears that the country is being inexorably drawn into a dangerous military adventure. Talk of that is everywhere in Ottawa these days—in caucus meetings, in the corridors of Parliament, in the sixth-floor Centre Block restaurant where members scarf down lunch before daily Question Period. Would an attack on Iraq trigger a wave of terrorist reprisals? Would the Middle East explode into further factional violence? Would the U.S. punish Canada if it refuses to join in unilateral action? Are there circumstances under which Canada will participate outside the UN umbrella? "This is serious," Liberal MP John Bryden said. "This is something that can come back to haunt Canada and destabilize the world. It's already destabilizing the United Nations and NATO, two institutions we care very much about."
Amid the uncertainty, the Prime Minister is hedging his bets. Pressed repeatedly by the opposition to definitively enunciate a clear
position, Chrétien has laced on his skates and in the best tradition of the national sport, ragged the puck endlessly. Canada, he insisted, "will be on the side of the UN, as we always have been." Yet the country also staunchly supports the objectives of its best friend and neighbour, the United States. A second Security Council resolution specifically mandating war is "highly desirable," he told the House—but not essential. And he stood four-square with Washington in supporting Turkey's request for NATO assistance for protection against Iraqi missiles, distancing himself from France, Germany and Belgium—the staunchest critics of the U.S. policy on Iraq. But at no time has he committed his government to participating in a war as long as the UN thinks inspections can work if more time is givensomething chief weapons inspector Hans Blix suggested on Friday.
But while rhetorically Chrétien tries to hold fast to his wait-and-see strategy, he may have tipped his hand. In two sure-footed moves last week, the Prime Minister managed to both steer Canada mostly out of the Iraq quagmire while demonstrating clear support for overall U.S. objectives. The most significant was the announcement that a battle group of about 2,000 Canadian soldiers will be back in Afghanistan by summer for a one-year tour of duty as part of the UN peacekeeping mission. Defence Minister John McCallum said the deployment was not directly related to Iraq, but conceded, "the more one sends to one place, the less one may have available for other places."
The minister's arithmetic was, as befits his economic training, irrefutable. But it was Chretien's political calculation that drew most of the plaudits, from hardliners as well as doves in his own caucus, such as Bryden, who would oppose any Iraqi campaign unless specifically mandated by the UN. Bryden believes a key factor in the decision to return to Afghanistan—after pulling troops out last summer—is that it provides the government diplomatic cover should Ottawa decide to sit out an assault on Saddam Hussein.
Noting the chilly, even denigrating, reaction in Washington to the French and German manoeuvres designed to forestall war, Bryden said Canada would find itself in a precarious no man's land if it is seen as opposing U.S. interests. "This way, we're like a conscientious objector in a war who still risks his life on the front lines, but in a support, medical role," he said. "We're saying we want to show solidarity with the Americans, but since we don't believe in unilateral action, we'll help you behind the scenes."
Not that Chrétien has ruled out joining an unsanctioned war. Besides the Afghan troop deployment, the government confirmed that Canadian Commodore Roger Girouard was named commander of Task Force 151, a multinational flotilla of, so far, nine allied warships with interdictory and support duties in the Persian Gulf and the Gulf of Oman—an unlikely assignment if Canada really was against unilateral action on Iraq. In addition, a group of 25 Canadian military officials were moved from the U.S.
command centre in Tampa to Qatar to prepare for possible hostilities. No big deal, insisted Chrétien. "Qatar is the same work we were doing in Tampa," he explained. "It's just that they've moved the people."
With the deployments, Chrétien has positioned Canada's meagre military assets to maximum effect—for war if necessary, and for offering material aid and comfort to the U.S. if not. "This is brilliantly Machiavellian," said Rob Huebert, a military analyst with the Centre for Military and Strategic Studies at the University of Calgary. "Chrétien has short-circuited every possible criticism from both the left and the right. He has committed, in a peacekeeping capacity, land forces to Afghanistan, and by the same token, he hasn't totally cut us out of the upcoming war on Iraq by making sure we maintain good strategic relations with the U.S."
In fact, Canada's active war role will almost certainly increase if necessary, says Huebert. Two Canadian frigates are part of Task
Force 151, patrolling the Persian Gulf and boarding merchant ships suspected of harbouring terrorists. A third may soon be on the scene—McCallum said the destroyer HMCS Iroquois would soon leave Halifax for the Gulf. If an Iraqi war breaks out, those ships would likely serve to escort U.S. and other allied vessels closer to the action. As well, Huebert says the Canadian Forces have been busy modernizing their fleet of CF-18s— about a half-dozen are close to battle-ready. They could join U.S. planes in an air campaign over Iraq. Canada could also con-
'Not everyone around the world is prepared to take the word of the United States on faith'
tribute snipers and commando units to the effort, as it did during the Afghan war. "Yes, we are committed to the war in Iraq," Huebert says. "We just don't want it known."
That suits Chrétien nicely. Recent polls show the Canadian public dreads the prospect of American bombs raining down on Iraqi civilians, especially outside a UN mandate, as much as the Liberal caucus. An IpsosReid survey conducted in early February found 67 per cent opposed to unilateral American action, while 60 per cent would only provide assistance under a UN mandate. Unlike Britain's Tony Blair, who has courted dissent within his own caucus and unpopularity among voters by jumping early on the Bush war bandwagon, Chrétien has chosen instead to coax both his party and Canadians toward a path he may need to take, however reluctantly. Doing so, he has risked appearing indecisive. But as last week's manoeuvres demonstrated, he has so far shown dexterity—keeping a foot in both the UN and U.S. camps. HI
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