February 15, 2003



The Canadian position on Iraq (send the army to Afghanistan) may seem dodgy, but it's worthwhile remembering this is exactly how Canada backed into both world wars, more or less, as well, by offering to take on another task elsewhere in the world, rather than contribute troops directly to the hegemonic power's (in those cases, Britain's) armies. In 1914, Prime Minister Laurier (a Liberal) sent the entire regular Canadian army, pretty much (ie, the Royal Canadian Regiment), to take over the Bermuda garrison, so the British regiment there could head to Flanders. Massive popular support for war among English Canadians after things started to go south for the Brits forced national mobilization anyway, but it was a good try.

Then in 1941, Laurier's successor King (a Liberal), among other dodges like the Commonwealth Air Training Plan, committed two Canadian battalions to Hong Kong, again to take over for British troops, and in part to reduce the pressure to send more Canadians to Europe. The fact that those troops were unwittingly massacred that December can be seen as largely a matter of bad timing.

But if one wants to really look at an interesting historical parallel, the corker is still 1956. It seems hard now to imagine a world where a strongly interventionist Britain and France, closely allied with Israel, could launch a pre-emptive strike on the Middle East's worst dictator, but be forced back by American refusal to tolerate the European recolonization of the region or Western favoritism for the Zionist enterprise. The mind boggles. But anyway, here's the corker. By carefully triangulating off of both sides, offering only passive support for everybody's aims, Canada, led by foreign minister Lester Pearson, was able to remain inoffensive enough to everybody involved so that we alone could insert a stabilization force to bulwark a fragile ceasefire, thereby avoiding a major NATO schism, and rejuvenate the UN (by inventing "peacekeeping") all in one sweep. Of course, it also got Pearson the Nobel, and remains the epitome of successful Canadian foreign policy.

Remember, Chretien literally studied at Pearson's knee when he first came to Ottawa. And he's clearly falling back on that Pearsonism now, playing Europe and the States off each other and keeping out until someone who can still talk to both sides is needed again. Hey, it worked spectacularly for his mentor once before, so it's reasonable for him to believe it's worth a shot again. Sending the army to Afghanistan is a part of this too, as it helps both Europe (the Germans are looking to pull out) and the Americans (a year's stability in Kabul would still be a blessing). Someone's actually giving the P.M. some pretty good foreign affairs advice for the moment, it seems. Given Canadian support for war is well below 20 per cent, it's his only sane political response, domestically, too.

What it does do, though, is knock Canada effectively out of plans not just for military victory (that was never in the cards) but military reconstruction in Iraq, too, at least until early 2005, assuming there's not any Bosnian pullout before then. Given the uncertainties around reconstruction I've been alluding too, this seems quite sound at this point, as well.

UPDATE: The Flitters wogs remind me that, of course, Borden, the conservative, was in power in 1914. Shame on me.

Posted by BruceR at 12:58 AM