Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Political Moment of the Decade: #3 No to Iraq

If you missed it, I asked readers to nominate, then vote, on Canada's top political moment of the decade. Over the first two weeks of January, I'm counting down the top 10 vote getters.

The biggest ovation Jean Chrétien got during his farewell speech at the 2003 Liberal Coronation Convention was when he talked about his decision to keep Canadian troops out of Iraq. If you read Chrétien or Eddie Goldenberg’s memoirs, you can tell they both saw it as a huge part of Chrétien’s legacy. And rightfully so.

While it seems like a slam-dunk in retrospect, it wasn’t at the time. The Americans were going, the British were backing them, and everyone was still in that post 9/11 mind frame. Public opinion was decidedly split, the Chrétien Cabinet was decidedly split, and the Premiers were decidedly split. There were rallies in the streets both for and against the war. And even though the man will deny it to his grave, Stephen Harper was urging Canada to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the Americans.

So, yeah, it was a big moment for Canada. And, when you look at it in the context of the decade that was, it becomes a defining moment. You had Jean Chrétien making a difficult decision during his farewell tour. You had Stephen Harper opposing him, in a move that would be thrown back in his face in three subsequent election campaigns. You had Paul Martin dancing the hokey pokey.

It was a decision about the largest international conflict of the decade, and the politics behind it were closely tied up in the moment of the decade - 9/11. It marked a turning point in Canada-US relations, which would continue to sour throughout the Bush years, to the point where the Liberals, NDP, and Bloc often seemed to be waging election campaigns against George Bush, rather than Stephen Harper.

If you've been following along, you've figured out by now that the top two moments in this end-of-decade poll are all about process and politics, rather than policy. But process and politics are a means to an end, and the Iraq war decision showed that who we vote for actually matters. It's certainly worthy of finishing in the top 3 moments of the decade.

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  • I like to think of this as the right decision for the wrong reason.

    But I won't look at gift horse in the mouth. Good call Jean, definitely your greatest contribution to Canada was to keep us out of this.

    By Blogger Robert Vollman, at 10:07 a.m.  

  • Most important line in your post, and something that ALL Canadians need to be reminded of: But process and politics are a means to an end, and the Iraq war decision showed that who we vote for actually matters.

    By Anonymous Luke, at 12:04 p.m.  

  • Definitely - this was one of Chretien's finest moments.

    By Anonymous JJ, at 12:15 p.m.  

  • It's not that we decided not to go to Iraq, it's that we simply couldn't. Due to the massive underfunding of our military by the Liberals, we couldn't afford the man power or budget to go there. Afghanistan has certainly been trying on the multiple missions by our regiments. Not a tough decision by Chretien, but still glad he made the obvious correct one.

    By Blogger Mike B., at 1:22 p.m.  

  • I especially liked Bob Nault's reaction. It took him about five minutes to rise to his feet even though he was sitting right next to (right behind?) Chretien. The look on his face said "Oh damn, there goes the last five paper mills left in my riding."

    By Anonymous herringchoker, at 4:35 p.m.  

  • i was there that day. The boss knew the mood before the country did. Martin just did what the polls said at the time. Chretien knew where people would get to eventually. I miss the guy, just like he said we would.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 11:15 a.m.  

  • Chretien knew that Canadians fighting in Iraq were the best way to continue PQ rule in Quebec, and acted accordingly. He and his successors instead stepped up Canada's Afghanistan commitment, freeing more American troops to fight in Iraq.

    This was a smart compromise that preserved national unity, while minimizing the damage to Canada-US relations. As others have mentioned as well, Chretien's under-funding of the military may have helped to make that decision inevitable.

    Still, I would have preferred a clearer voice from Canada on the issue of regime change. You don't need to send troops in order to say that Saddam Hussein was a butcher, or that Iraq would be better off without him (eventually).

    Only time will tell whether the Afghanistan compromise was "a bargain" in terms of blood and treasure over the long run.

    Still, for me the national unity issue is the clincher. A commitment of troops would have cost Charest the 2003 election, and would mean that Adscam (which caused separatist sentiments to soar) would hit the presses with separatists ready to call a referendum - one they could have won.

    By Blogger french wedding cat, at 6:01 p.m.  

  • Without this decision I wouldn't be a member of the Liberal party today.

    By Anonymous Andrew in Calgary, at 1:18 p.m.  

  • Underfunding of the military had nothing to do with it. The troop commitments from some of the smaller members of the "Coalition of the Willing" were paltry.

    Iceland sent 2 soldiers. Moldova sent 24. This is not a hard level of commitment to match.

    By Blogger leonsp, at 10:25 a.m.  

  • This was the most shameless moment in all of Canadian history. When we sided with terrorists insteaqd of our allies for freedom. Shame on Chretien and all who followed his lies.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 12:23 a.m.  

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