The Right Call on the Wrong War

Published in, March 19, 2013

In the weeks leading up to the disastrous invasion of Iraq a decade ago, a number of prominent Canadian commentators and political figures warned of dire consequences to Canada-U.S. relations if this country failed to join the American-led coalition.  As it turned out, however, the U.S. administration quickly got over Prime Minister Jean Chretien’s decision to keep Canada out of the war and the American public, for its part, barely seemed to notice Canada’s stance.

In recent days, we have been reminded of the letter that Stephen Harper, then the leader of the opposition, sent to the Wall Street Journal criticizing Chretien’s decision and declaring that it was “manifestly in the national interest of Canada” to participate in the invasion.  Yet, Harper was far from alone – many others at the time also insisted that the decision would inflict profound and lasting harm to Canada-U.S. relations.

National Post columnist Andrew Coyne, for example, was one of these commentators.  In late January 2003, when Britain was already siding with the U.S., and France and Germany were refusing to be bullied into supporting an ever-more-likely invasion, Coyne wrote:

It is unconscionable enough that Canada cannot, at this point, be counted among the allies.  We have already paid a price in diplomatic terms, being regarded now as marginal nuisances, where once we were trusted confidants.  But if, in the crunch, we elect to side with France and Germany ­– and, by extension, Iraq – against the United States, on a matter the Americans regard as vital to their security interests, we will be counting the costs for generations.  We will be viewed in Washington, not just as irrelevant, but as hostile.

Leave aside the emotional reaction that is likely to engender in the short term.  As a matter of cold, dispassionate realpolitik, the Americans will see to it that a price is paid: on trade, on defence, on any matter in which we might once have been given the benefit of the doubt.  The political consequences at home, once it is realized what the Chretienites have wrought, will be dire.

We now know that Coyne’s fears for the future of Canada-U.S. relations were largely unfounded.  Although Chretien’s decision (and the less-than-diplomatic manner in which he announced it) led to a cooling in the relationship, the duration and effects of this chill were limited.  President George W. Bush cancelled an official trip to Ottawa, and there may have been some reduction in U.S. intelligence-sharing with Canada, but cooperation in most areas of the relationship continued largely as usual.  As early as 2004, moreover, the two countries were devising a deeper agenda of security and economic cooperation, which they pursued in the ensuing years.

Nor did U.S. public opinion turn against Canada.  According to Gallup surveys conducted throughout this period (see chart), Americans maintained an overwhelmingly favourable view of both Canada and Britain throughout the war, despite the fact that the British joined the coalition and Canada did not.  Indeed, a decade after the invasion, Canada was viewed in a more positive light than even Britain.

Data source: Gallup.  Numbers express the percent of U.S. respondents who indicated a “very favourable” or “mostly favourable” opinion of the country in question.  Polls displayed in this chart were conducted in February of each year.

By contrast, the reputations of Germany and France, both of which sat out the war, suffered significant blows in 2003-2004.  Why Canada did not experience a similarly sharp decline in U.S. favourability during this period remains a puzzle.  One possible explanation is that positive attitudes towards Canada are so deeply rooted in the U.S. that they remain relatively stable even during periods of disagreement between Washington and Ottawa.  A more likely explanation, however, is that most Americans were simply not aware that Canada had adopted an anti-war stance, whereas the positions of France and Germany were widely reported in the U.S. media.  If this explanation is correct, it should give pause to Canadians who participate in our national pastime of lamenting Americans’ inadequate knowledge of Canada.  If roughly 90 percent of Americans have persistently positive views of their northern neighbour, as these polls suggest, then what is there to fix?  American ignorance may be the key to Canadian bliss.

More to the point, Canada did the right thing by staying out of the Iraq war, and it suffered little diplomatic damage for taking this stand.  While there is little solace to be found from the war’s devastation ten years on – by one estimate, the conflict has resulted in a heart-breaking 190,000 deaths and cost $2.2 trillion – for Canadians, the sombreness of this anniversary should be tempered by relief.

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