December 14, 2005

Stephen Harper's Withdrawal from Iraq

On Iraq, 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. I must admit great disappointment at the failure to substantiate pre-war intelligence information regarding Iraq's possession of weapons of mass destruction.
(Stephen Harper, letter to the Washington Times, December 11, 2005)

At the heart of the US scandal over the outing of a CIA agent is an assertion made by George W. Bush in his January 28, 2003 State of the Union address. "The British government has learned", said the President with stirring confidence, "that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa".

It was an odd turn of phrase, given that the US did have a bit of money budgeted for evaluating claims like this on its own. The careful wording looked especially well-chosen when, on March 7, the director-general of the International Atomic Energy Agency told the U.N. Security Council that documents purporting to show Iraq tried to buy uranium oxide from Niger were "in fact not authentic".

That May New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof reported that the CIA had sent a former ambassador to Niger in February 2002, after receiving a request from Vice President Cheney's office to investigate the story. Upon returning, the ex-diplomat reported to both the CIA and State Department that allegations about Iraq seeking or buying "yellowcake" uranium showed an abundance of creativity.

The envoy's name was Joseph Wilson and in July 2003 he went public, giving interviews and writing his own Op-Ed article in the Times. He suggested, shockingly, that some intelligence had been "twisted to exaggerate the Iraqi threat", as Cheney would certainly have known the British source was fragrant long before the President's address was written.

Columnist Robert Novak, in the course of claiming that Wilson's report had been "less than definitive", bizarrely informed his readers that Wilson's wife Valerie was a CIA operative. "Two senior administration officials", apparently hoping to paint Joseph Wilson as a Linda McCartney type who was only in the band by virtue of being married to the talented one, had told Novak it was the wife's idea to send him to Niger. A criminal investigation into the possible unauthorized disclosure of classified information followed, as did the indictment of Cheney's chief of staff Lewis Libby on charges of obstruction of justice, making false statements, and perjury.

Whatever the legal outcome, Libby's indictment re-ignited debate in the US on whether Bush's team had chosen a course of action based on the best available intelligence, or rather chosen intelligence based on a course of military action they thought would be boffo.

This is essentially the same debate that took place in Ottawa the day after the State of the Union address, albeit in somewhat more formal language. President Bush's declaration that the course of his nation did not depend on the decisions of others was all the rage on Parliament Hill, and the House was mulling what Canada should do if the US and its willing coalition attacked Iraq without explicit UN Security Council authorization.

While NDP and BQ members took turns heckling the address, the governing Liberals cleared their throats and repeatedly mumbled a noncommital interest in hearing what Colin Powell and Hans Blix would have to say at the UN. Even PC leader Joe Clark sounded like he thought Bush's script needed a punchier ending:

Secretary Powell will come next week to the Security Council with evidence, and he should understand that the world expects to see evidence. There were several references last night, all of them vague, about intelligence reports. We need to know more, not necessarily the House but authorities need to know more about the content of those intelligence reports. It is not enough to say that they are there. There has to be scrutiny of them. We need the proof.

Stephen Harper, by contrast, showed a bottomless reserve of credulousness for Bush, outdoing even CA colleague Stockwell Day in his eagerness to swallow and pass undigested every toad the US President offered. Mr. Harper opened by reminding those present that his party had called for participation in the predeployment exercises, and he proudly recalled his own remarks of 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.

Buoyed by the soundness of his past insight, Harper was moved to divine the future so that all present might benefit from his prescience.

In my judgment Canada will eventually join with the allied coalition if war on Iraq comes to pass. The government will join, notwithstanding its failure to prepare, its neglect in co-operating with its allies, or its inability to contribute. In the end it will join out of the necessity created by a pattern of uncertainty and indecision. It will not join as a leader but unnoticed at the back of the parade.

This is wrong. It is not fitting with the greatness of our history or with our standing as a nation. We need to be standing through tough times and taking tough decisions.

The key word above is "parade", as Harper's commitment never wavered as long as a glorious victory celebration seemed likely. The US-and-UK- led force did attack Iraq on March 20, and on March 28 Harper and Day found it meet to publish a letter in the Wall Street Journal.

Today, the world is at war. A coalition of countries under the leadership of the U.K. and the U.S. is leading a military intervention to disarm Saddam Hussein. Yet Prime Minister Jean Chretien has left Canada outside this multilateral coalition of nations.

This is a serious mistake. For the first time in history, the Canadian government has not stood beside its key British and American allies in their time of need.

Harper then made an appearance on Fox News to endorse the war on behalf of "the silent majority" of Canadians. So his remarks on the campaign trail the following year would come as something of a surprise, as if he'd either given up hope of being in a parade or received new sign language from the mute crowd.

Asked during an April 25 2004 appearance on CTV's Question Period about the possibility of deploying Canadian soldiers in Iraq, Harper didn't sound much like his previous boisterous self. "Given our limited military capacity," the leader of the newly merged Conservative party mused, "and the extent to which our people are already over-commited across the world, I don't think that's feasible."

The following week, he expressed his disappointment following revelations the Liberals had prepared ads suggesting Canadian troops would already be in Iraq if Harper had been Prime Minister back in 2003. Words were being taken out of context, he protested, to "describe positions that are simply not mine."

Fortunately the positions which were his at the time are recorded in Hansard and available on-line, so readers can reflect at leisure on whether he would have committed troops to the invasion. Much of Harper's rousing rhetoric after the State of the Union address, though, concerned the importance of standing firm not just against Saddam but also against the whims of an inconstant electorate.

This party will not take its position based on public opinion polls. We will not take a stand based on focus groups. We will not take a stand based on phone-in shows or householder surveys or any other vagaries of public opinion.

"One does not say one is not interested in public opinion", he explained to the NDP's Peter Stoffer, "but one is not a prisoner to it."

Why, then, does one drag one's ass into the television studios 14 months later to rule out the possibility one will send Canadian soldiers to Iraq if elected? To beat back the army of householders eager to enlist?

Campaigning in Barrie in June 2004, Harper took a moment to clear up the little misunderstanding over his "predeployment" stance. "It was about putting pressure on Saddam to comply with UN resolutions", he explained, "and I continue to believe if allies had acted in a concerted measure to put that pressure, we could have avoided a war." Truly this was an inspiring belief, but one which the British officials who'd trumpeted the "uranium from Africa" story didn't seem to share.

In the summer of 2005 the Sunday Times published the briefing paper and minutes from a July 23, 2002 meeting of UK Prime Minister Tony Blair's inner circle. Notably, the suspicion a number of Canadian MP's voiced indelicately on January 29, 2003 turned out to be the very assumption Blair's team had been operating on for months: that the Bush administration had no intention of avoiding a war. "Intelligence and facts were being fixed around the policy", Blair's people were told, and the purpose of going to the UN Security Council would be to create a legal pretext for British participation in the invasion.

When Harper announced his defence platform for the current election outside the Canadian Forces' Trenton air base on December 13, he reiterated that a Conservative government would not join the US-led war in Iraq. He continued to wish the Americans success, of course, but his muse now told him "our role is in Afghanistan, it is not in Iraq".

It was a stately conclusion to a tough decision taken in tough times, and a compelling demonstration of Harper's fitness to match wits with the global power elite. Having honed his critical thinking skills on the speeches of George W. Bush and Tony Blair, he's at last in good enough shape to take on Bono.


  • Categories : Canadian Politics, US Foreign Policy