Canada and Iraq: Plus ça change

Paul Wells explains why Jean Chrétien would be proud of Stephen Harper’s Iraq policy

The United States is sending hundreds of troops, maybe more, to Baghdad as chaos in Iraq mounts. Canada, Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird told the Commons today in a 35-second response to a planted question, isn’t. Baird and the Prime Minister needn’t worry about having to explain themselves further on Iraq, as the Conservative government’s policy of concerned distance from the mess puts it in pretty good harmony with the opposition New Democrats, the Liberals, and Stephen Harper’s predecessor Jean Chrétien.

I don’t follow Canadian-Iraqi relations overly closely, so I was surprised on Monday when the Department of Foreign Affairs announced it was pulling Canada’s chargé out of Baghdad, leaving no Canadian diplomatic presence there. Turns out we don’t have an embassy in Iraq after eight years of Conservative government. Our ambassador to Iraq lives and works in Jordan. The chargé, who’s been asked to leave for her safety, was first posted there a year ago. And though there were several reports in Iraqi media last autumn to the effect that a full embassy would open in Baghdad this year, there’s been no follow-up and I’m not sure how much credence to give the original reports. For one thing, they all misspell the Canadian ambassador’s name. He’s this guy.

The absence of a full ambassador in Iraq is a tell, and what it indicates is what you suspected: The Prime Minister is less excited than he used to be about the potential benefits of military intervention in Iraq. We have to look for hints like this, because nobody has seen fit to walk us through Stephen Harper’s reasoning.

If this were the U.K., we could all enjoy a merry set-to over Iraq between the former prime minister who thought deposing Saddam Hussein was a splendid idea, Tony Blair, and the perhaps-future PM, who used to think so and now really doesn’t. Boris Johnson gave the headline writers plenty to work with, arguing Blair was “unhinged” and “mad,” and that he should “put a sock in it.” Quite the contrary, I’d argue: Big public debates over the merits of big life-and-death policy decisions are all to the good and, being Canadian, make me so nostalgic, I could weep.

(On the merits, I’ll say only that even if you buy everything Blair wrote, it’s a singularly modest justification for an intervention that took the lives of 179 U.K. soldiers. Everything was fine in Iraq as late as 2010, he writes. But I don’t recall him saying in 2003 that toppling Saddam would buy peace for seven, maybe even eight years, after which it would become necessary to try again. As for Boris, his position is essentially that he liked the Iraq invasion when it seemed easy, but now he’s in the throes of sticker shock. This is an argument Michael Ignatieff would love.)

The evolution of Harper’s thinking on Iraq, and on military matters generally, would be fascinating to investigate. It’ll all have to await his memoirs, if any. You could put a good face on things by concluding, quite simply, that he learns from events: Having delivered far more phone calls to the families of soldiers who died in Afghanistan than he’d planned to, and having learned for himself what an amazing schmozzle any war and (to a lesser but still substantial degree) any equipment procurement becomes, he’s decided to do less by military than he once wanted to. The scale of military cutbacks is getting noticed, although, again, that leaves Harper vulnerable on his right flank, where there are no opposition parties.

Finally, the scale of the gap between U.S. and Canadian government thinking on the Iraq crisis remains nearly breathtaking. Barack Obama wants to enlist the help of the Iranian regime in solving this latest Iraq mess. Baird just published an article in Foreign Policy magazine saying Iran’s president, Hassan Rouhani, has not earned anyone’s trust. I don’t have great solutions to offer for a conflict that extends far past Iraq’s borders. And, to the extent anyone who used to think he had great solutions is now chastened and gun-shy, I call that progress.