OPINION

Stephen Harper’s twisted walk back on Iraq

PAUL WELLS January 29 2007
OPINION

Stephen Harper’s twisted walk back on Iraq

PAUL WELLS January 29 2007

Stephen Harper’s twisted walk back on Iraq

OPINION

PAUL WELLS

The Prime Minister is smitten. “I first met Wajid Khan after his election to Parliament in 2004,” Stephen Harper said on Jan. 5, when he wheeled out the newly Conservative member of Parliament, theretofore a Liberal. “I admired his knowledge, inspiring life story and his obvious love for our country.”

Khan, as you know, agreed to report to Harper on Middle Eastern affairs while still a Liberal. Now he will sit as a Conservative. “He has travelled to the Middle East, provided me with a report,” Harper said. “His work has been thoughtful, detailed and rich in very helpful information.”

This is high praise. In fact, the last time Stephen Harper was this impressed with somebody’s analysis of the Middle East, the analyst in question was George W. Bush.

President Bush has had a difficult time lately in Iraq. He lost the mid-term elections, fired his defence secretary, and is about to launch his presidency’s last stand—a “surge” of thousands of fresh troops in one more desperate attempt to take and hold Baghdad.

Harper, by comparison, has had it easy. In his year-end interviews, he was not asked whether decapitating the Baghdad regime still looks to him like a good idea, and whether Canada should have participated. Which is odd, because his latest answers to those questions (for he has offered many answers, over time) would tell us much about his judgment and credulity. Those are hardly topics of merely historical interest.

Harper stood in the House of Commons in January 2003, to remind MPs that as early as the previous October, “I noted that there is no doubt that Saddam Hussein operates programs to produce weapons of mass destruction. Experience confirms this. British, Canadian and American intelligence leaves no doubt on the matter.”

Therefore, Canada must help depose Saddam Hussein. Failure to do so, Harper said, “is not fitting with the greatness of our history or with our standing as a nation.” Later in March, the Bloc Québécois provoked a Commons vote on a motion “that this House call upon the government not to participate in the military intervention” in Iraq. As fate would have it, the vote came on March 20. The 50 MPs who voted nay—who did not want Canada to stay out of Iraq—included

almost every Alliance MP present, including Stephen Harper.

Later that day the U.S. and the United Kingdom finally began their bombing campaign against Baghdad. Six days later, Harper told the Commons: “We should be there with our allies when it counts against Saddam Hussein.”

Two days after that, he published a letter in the Wall StreetJournal. “Jean Chrétien has left Canada outside this multilateral coalition of nations,” he wrote. “This is a serious mistake.”

Months later, Harper was still furious. He told this magazine in August 2003: “Canada remains alienated from its allies, shut out of the reconstruction process to some degree, unable to influence events. There is no upside to the position Canada took.”

I belabour these points because, as soon as the Iraq adventure went sour, Harper put as much distance as he could between himself and his erstwhile allies, Bush, Tony Blair and Australia’s John Howard. Say what you will about their wisdom; at least they stuck with their policy after it became unpopular. Harper cut and ran.

April 25,2004: on CTV, Harper was asked about sending Canadian soldiers to Iraq. “Given our limited military capacity and the extent to which our people are already overcommited across the world, I don’t think that’s feasible.”

Campaigning in Barrie, Ont., several weeks later, he said his 2003 stance “was about putting pressure on Saddam to comply with UN resolutions.” If Canada had done so, “we could have avoided a war.” Which is odd. Apparently when he said, six days into the war, that “we should be there... when it counts,” he forgot to say it no longer counted.

By December 2005, Harper had his story more or less straight. He wrote to the Washington Times: “While I support the removal of Saddam Hussein and applaud the efforts to establish democracy and freedom in Iraq, I would not commit Canadian troops to that country.” How Liberal of him. In 2003 it was Chrétien who supported Saddam’s removal and would not commit Canadian troops. Remind me why that made Harper so angry?

George W. Bush got the world into this mess because he preferred the musings of cronies and ideologues to credible information from professional diplomats and analysts. Harper is making a parallel mistake by hitching his Middle East wagon to Wajid Khan, a car salesman from Mississauga who last flew in the Pakistan air force before his new Commons colleague James Moore was born. But the Prime Minister’s problem—and therefore ours—is not the advice he receives. It is the advice he chooses to believe, and the judgment those choices reveal. M

The last time he was this impressed with Mideast analysis, it was George W. Bush’s

ON THE WEB: For more Paul Wells, visit his blog at www.macleans.ca/inklesswells