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Antony Anderson: Jean Chrétien had an impossible choice to make on the Iraq War—and he got it right

Commentary

The Hub is pleased to present a weekly column from author and historian Antony Anderson on the week that was in Canadian history.

March 17, 2003: PM Jean Chrétien announces Canada will not participate in the American-led invasion of Iraq

Perhaps this is our true superpower: just saying “No.” 

In September 2001, confronted by murderous attacks on American soil, U.S. President George W. Bush put the world on notice, “Every nation, in every region, now has a decision to make. Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists.”  When Washington took on the religious extremists in Afghanistan dedicated to killing infidels—that would be us—Prime Minister Jean Chrétien dispatched Canadian ground forces to join the fight, Canada’s first combat role since the 1950 Korean War. It soon turned out to be just the opening round. Next came the battle over Iraq, at first conducted amongst friends in secret diplomatic cables, official statements, and personal encounters. Iraqi president, Saddam Hussein, was said by high-ranking U.S. officials to possess the makings of weapons of mass destruction. Better to take him out sooner rather than later, their arguments went. 

Chrétien was unconvinced by the legality and morality of the case and by the complacent presumptions of success but he remained open. His public and private response was clear and consistent—Canada would participate in this next phase if the U.N. Security Council authorised the mission, a classic Canadian position going back to Korea and very much behind our participation in the 1991 Gulf War. Some allies—most notably Britain’s Tony Blair—clamoured to get to the front of the line. Many held back with Canada. Students and practitioners of international relations made compelling cases for opposing arguments. The looming assault on a dictatorship was justified because individual human security mattered more than national sovereignty, while others insisted one must respect the sanctity of international boundaries no matter what evil lurked within. Merely standing still in this hurricane required formidable confidence and discipline. 

Such was the intensity of the times that Bush offered to come to Ottawa himself. Chrétien dodged the invitation, noting to his foreign affairs minister Bill Graham, “I can say no to Bush on the phone. It would be harder to say no to him face to face.” At another point in the diplomatic contortions, Graham, a former professor of law, mused with his boss about whether Canada would have more influence in the matter if it held a seat on the Security Council. A shrewd political veteran, Chrétien replied, “Bill, there are times when you don’t want to be on the Security Council.” And besides, beyond the U.N., there were multiple other arenas to put the squeeze on Canada. At the 2002 Commonwealth gathering in South Africa, Blair met with Chrétien over a private drink to make the case for getting rid of the “ruthless tyrant.” In his memoirs, the Canadian leader recalled posing a relevant question: if we take out one nasty leader—and no one disputed the loathsome depravity of Hussein—where do we stop? Do we cross the border into Zimbabwe, Chrétien asked, and remove the appalling Robert Mugabe? Blair tried to counter by saying there was a difference between the two leaders but Chrétien cut him off with the apparently infuriating observation, “Tony, there is indeed a tremendous difference. Mugabe has no oil.” Fair point but not the whole story. 

Washington would not be deflected forever and in February 2003 dispatched its chief diplomat, a former general no less, Secretary of State Colin Powell, to unveil seemingly detailed evidence at the Security Council outlining Iraqi transgressions and threats. He could not persuade key holdouts like France and Russia and much later, apparently confided to Graham, “You have no idea. I threw out boxes and boxes of stuff they tried to get me to say. I was briefed by our intelligence people with mountains of crap. That’s what I got.” Well, the crap certainly didn’t smell like champagne and Canada continued to stand back while other democracies, including Denmark, Japan, the Netherlands, Poland, and South Korea agreed to go into Iraq and topple a murderous tyrant, whether the U.N. gave its blessing or not. To newspapers and their pundits, political parties, and think tanks operating on what is called the right wing, Chrétien’s waiting game was outrageous if not treasonous. But he was in fact following a time-honoured Canadian trajectory when dealing with empires that echoed back to Sir John A. Macdonald. 

Despite proud declarations about remaining a British subject from birth to death, Macdonald refused the Mother Country’s call in 1885 to sail to Sudan to put down a religious fanatic, “Why should we waste money and men in this wretched business…sacrificed to get [U.K. PM] Gladstone and Co. out of the hole they have plunged themselves into by their own imbecility.” Sir Wilfrid Laurier refused to join the Empire’s  campaign to bash the Boers in South Africa, explaining in the House of Commons in February 1900, “While every Canadian admits that he would be ready to contribute our treasure and our blood…for the rescue of England, were she engaged in a life and death struggle, there are many Canadians who are not ready to take part in the secondary wars of England.” In 1922, William Lyon Mackenzie King declined the imperial summons to defend a British garrison in Chanak, Turkey, noting in his diary, “How quickly a nation may become inflamed and the war passions aroused. Indeed everyone seemingly is ready for war—nurses, soldiers, churches…there is no attempt to consider the issue, just that Britain has issued a call, therefore we should respond.” Louis St. Laurent would defy the British appeal to help out at Suez in 1956. In the 1960s, Lester Pearson would evade American invitations to send troops to Vietnam. So there were precedents, touchstones, continuities. 

Prime Minister Jean Chretien receives a standing ovation from his caucus after announcing Canada will not participate in a war on Iraq, during Question Period in the House of Commons, in Ottawa Mar 17, 2003. Tom Hanson/CP Photo.

By the spring of 2003, the disunited Security Council failed to agree on how it should deal with Iraq. Washington wasn’t waiting around for any more polished debates. It was going in. On March 17, Chrétien stood in the House of Commons and declared, “A year ago, I said to the president of the United States that Canada would intervene in a conflict with Iraq only if we were to have a resolution authorizing intervention by the Security Council. They have known my position and the position of the government since the first day. We have always stuck with that position. Today we have the conclusion that the Security Council does not have a resolution to authorize action, so we are not participating.”

Some fretted about American retaliation but, as is often the case, the cross-border relationship is so vast and entangled it’s not easy for them to hurt us without inflicting damage upon themselves as well. And in the end, the ties that bind are not just a cold-blooded counting of goods bought and sold. They’re emotional as well. They cut us slack. It helped that, even though he denied the big ask, Chrétien kept Canada in the wider war in other ways, on the very deadly ground in Afghanistan and in the Persian Gulf serving in a multi-national naval task force—not unlike how Macdonald and Laurier refused to send official contingents but still allowed volunteers to sail to their dreamed of adventures over the horizon. 

Ultimately, time proved Chrétien right. Any hallucinations held in the Oval Office and State Department of imposing democracy were engulfed by the unforgiving reality of making peace with people whose lives and homes had been devastated by American shock and awe, even more so in a region that defies the best of outside intentions and foolish meddling. 

This was a big moment, and perhaps the decision that Chrétien will be remembered for most. Macdonald, Laurier, King, St. Laurent, and Pearson would have voiced their approval. Future prime ministers will need to study the footwork. 

The Weekly Wrap: It’s time to have the private health-care conversation

Commentary

This week‘s edition of The Hub’s Weekly Wrap reflects on some of the past week’s biggest stories, including what the upcoming federal budget might bring, new polling showing increasing support for private health-care options, and recent criticisms from both the Left and the Right.

Will a desperate Trudeau double down on class conflict to save his skin?

This week we learned that federal Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland will table the budget on April 16, which is one of the latest budgets outside of an election or some other extenuating circumstances in forty years. 

The minister was generally circumspect about the budget’s priorities, though she did nod to the anticipated inclusion of pharmacare. National Post columnist John Ivison wrote that it’s likely to be a free-spending budget in light of the government’s struggle for its political survival. 

But the budget’s real story may not be new spending. It may instead come in the form of new taxes targeting big business and wealthy individuals. The Trudeau government might just try to survive by appealing to class warfare.  

The Hub published an article this week by the Business Council of Canada CEO Goldy Hyder that warned about growing rumours that the government is considering an excess profits (or “windfall”) tax on large corporations. 

The basic details are somewhat unclear, but the Trudeau government has previously imposed excess profits taxes on banks and life insurance companies and threatened them on the grocery sector. The implication here is that they could be extended to other parts of the economy. 

The negative effects of such a policy in terms of employment, investment, and wages could be significant. A report last year for the European Parliament for instance warned that windfall taxes can create big distortions—particularly in a globalized economy. The result could be a lot of economic damage without much revenue upside. 

The same goes for the persistent rumour that the government is thinking about using the budget to signal a new wealth tax that would draw an outstanding NDP proposal and popular thinking within progressive circles. One estimate is that such a tax could generate as much as $30 billion in federal revenues—though it must be said that these estimates depend on high “exit taxes” and even the imposition of strict capital controls. 

A wealth tax on high net-worth individuals would thus face broadly similar economic problems as a windfall tax on corporations. There are also some technical challenges that cannot be overstated. 

But technocratic arguments against these proposals sort of miss the point. The government won’t move forward with them based on economic or fiscal considerations—it’s not like the Trudeau government is now suddenly concerned about deficits after effectively doubling the national debt. 

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau listens while meeting with senior citizens at a community centre in Richmond, B.C., on Tuesday, February 20, 2024. Darryl Dyck/The Canadian Press.

The true motivation here would be to use tax policy to precipitate class conflict in our politics. Its main political purpose is to effectively wedge Pierre Poilievre and the Conservatives into defending large corporations and wealthy Canadians. This isn’t evidence-based policy or high-minded idealism. It’s cynical politics and naked populism. 

It may not be as politically propitious as the government might think either. Although polls indicate that Canadians generally favour higher taxes on corporations and high-income earners, there’s also compelling evidence that people are more concerned about fairness than equality. They’re even prepared to live with higher levels of inequality if they’re satisfied that the economy is fundamentally meritocratic rather than tilted in favour of certain companies or individuals.

It’s possible therefore for Pierre Poilievre and the Conservatives to be strongly in favour of eliminating foreign ownership restrictions or tax preferences that disproportionately benefit high-income earners or other measures that would level the playing field when it comes to the market’s distribution of income and wealth and still oppose these potential tax hikes which are ultimately about leveling outcomes rather than enhancing fairness. 

If next month’s budget contains some combination of windfall and wealth taxes, Conservatives shouldn’t take the bait. They should call it out for what it is: a desperate move that won’t do anything to help Canadians because that’s not the point. 

It’s time to have the private health-care conversation

Ipsos released a new poll this week that found, contrary to popular political commentary, a sizeable majority in favour of private health care for those who can afford it and greater private delivery within the public insurance model. This is a big deal. 

Think about it: nearly two-thirds of Canadians say that they’re in favour of “two-tier” health care which no politician is actively proposing. It signals that the political class is well behind the public and represents the conditions for an enterprising politician to advance a more ambitious agenda. 

We certainly need it. Not only are general wait times at an all-time high, but we’re now increasingly encountering on a daily basis excruciating stories of 20-hour emergency room waits, large-scale hospital overoccupancy, and adverse health consequences, including avoidable deaths. 

The facts overwhelming point in the direction of some kind of market-based reform. Polls show that Canadians instinctively understand it. Yet too many politicians dogmatically cling to the status quo even as the system collapses around them. 

Federal health minister Mark Holland for instance recently said that “we’re not going to allow that [greater private delivery] to happen.” This isn’t an expression of evidence-based policy. It’s a quasi-religious statement. 

Holland and to be fair a lot of politicians—including some conservatives—are seemingly prepared to trade off worse health-care outcomes in exchange for a false fidelity to the principle of equality—even if it ultimately means equal misery and suffering. 

Conservatives often get accused of being ideologues in today’s political climate. But is there anything more hyper-ideological than defending a system that’s self-evidently producing such bad outcomes and that a majority of Canadians say requires fundamental reform? It’s like persisting in the view that the earth is flat long after it had been proven otherwise. 

Some day people will no doubt look back on the past 30 years of health policy debates in Canada and think that we were crazy. We’ve collectively accepted an egalitarianism of poor outcomes even though various other jurisdictions have matched our commitment to equality without people dying because of rationing and scarcity. 

The Ipsos poll tells us that this attachment to a failed system isn’t an example of the public wagging the dog. It’s a case of elite failure. Hard-core ideologues in politics and universities (including law deans and medical school chairs) have substituted their own political preferences for the rest of us. The outcomes have been tragic in some cases. 

Here’s the good news: last year, many health-care reform proponents were disappointed that the Supreme Court of Canada wouldn’t take up the Cambie Case which sought to invoke Section 7 of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms to open the door to reform to Canada’s single-payer model. It seems increasingly clear that we won’t need jurisprudence to produce much-needed reforms. They’re increasingly attainable through the democratic process. 

On ordered liberty, neoliberalism, and profoundly missing the point

One of the consequences of being engaged in the world of ideas is that it inevitably comes with both criticism and mischaracterization. This week we received both—including from the Left and the Right. 

Left-wing social media personality David Moscrop wrote in The Tyee about a recent Weekly Wrap that was favourable to Conservative leader Pierre Poilievre’s support for restrictions on online pornography for minors. In particular, he criticized the intellectual basis for such a policy position—what we termed “ordered liberty”—as an oxymoronic and ultimately politically-motivated crackdown on “historically marginalized individuals and groups.”

There are various problems with his line of analysis. A big one is that the idea of “ordered liberty” is neither my ideological formulation nor one conceived by Stephen Harper or Jason Kenney. Edmund Burke, the father of Anglo-American conservatism, wrote in 1774 that the only true liberty is “a liberty connected with order: that not only exists along with order and virtue but that cannot exist at all without them.” The conservative tradition since its founding has been rooted in an ongoing dialogue between liberty and order. 

The bigger problem though is an apparent lack of self-awareness. Moscrop, a self-avowed socialist, accuses Poilievre of intellectual inconsistency for generally being pro-freedom but calling for government intervention in the particular case of online pornography for minors. Yet his entire worldview is replete with inconsistencies between a maximalist view of human freedom and a vision for a socialist state. How else does one describe his support for adolescents to change their gender without parental consent on the one hand and large-scale public ownership or confiscatory taxes on the other hand? The only connective tissue between this combination of unconstrained social autonomy and economic statism is the kind of radicalism that Burke observed in France. 

Not to be outdone: Financial Post columnist Terence Corcoran wrote a sharp critique this week of my recent Hub essay on the growing intellectual and political challenges to neoliberalism. I thought the essay (“We need neoliberalism now more than ever”) clearly set out my own criticism of these trends and made the case broadly in favour of free markets and supply-side economics. Apparently not. 

Corcoran bizarrely claimed the opposite. He wrote that I believe that free trade has “produced deleterious outcomes” and therefore favour “the diminution of markets and an elevated role for the state.” There’s one problem: these quotes (which are taken from the essay) aren’t a reflection of my own views. They’re my description of the views of neoliberalism’s critics. 

I’ll take for granted that the cause of the confusion was my dense prose rather than a deliberate mischaracterization on Corcoran’s part. One lesson though is that we both evidently could use some more editing.