Published March 30, 2015, in the Waterloo Region Record.
Back in the spring of 2003, in the waning days of his prime ministry, Jean Chrétien announced the decision for which he will be long remembered. Canada, he told a tumultuous House of Commons, would be not joining the U.S.-led "coalition of the willing" in its war against Iraq.
There are times in politics when a decision not to take a certain step is tougher, yet wiser, than a decision to take that step. In March 2003, Chrétien was under pressure both from U.S. president George W. Bush and from Stephen Harper, the newly minted leader of the opposition in Ottawa, to commit Canadian forces to the invasion of Iraq. If Chrétien had succumbed to their pressure, Canada would have been locked into an unwinnable war that in the end dragged on for eight years, claiming the lives of 4,491 U.S. military personnel and hundreds of thousands of Iraqi troops and civilians.
Chrétien said no to Bush because the United States had been unable to persuade the UN Security Council to endorse military action. There was no evidence to support the Bush administration's claim that Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction. Canada, Chrétien said, would honour military commitments to its allies in the then two-year-old war in Afghanistan, but it was going to stay out of Iraq,
There's not much doubt that if Harper had been prime minister in 2003, and particularly if he had a majority government, Canada would have followed the United States into Iraq. That would have been a huge mistake, as Harper finally and grudgingly admitted five years later, during a leaders' debate in the 2008 election campaign. By this time, he was prime minister, and as the Green party leader declared in that debate: "We're only not sending anyone to Iraq because you weren't prime minister at the time (in 2003)."
So now it is 2015. Harper has a majority government, and Canada has followed the United States into war against ISIL with a bombing campaign in Iraq. Now the Harper government intends to extend its bombing to ISIL targets in Syria.
The situations are different, of course. Saddam Hussein was a brutal despot who deserved to be removed from power. He had thoroughly annoyed the United States, but did not directly threaten Canadian interests. ISIL is a monster of a different order. It is a movement of murderous fanatics who do not hesitate to wreak violence abroad as well as at home. Any polls I've seen suggest strong public support for the war against ISIL.
(It's worth noting that the United Kingdom, which was alongside the U.S. in the "coalition of the willing" a decade ago, and which is part of the current anti-ISIL bombing in Iraq, is not going into Syria. The Cameron coalition government could not win the support of the British Parliament for a Syrian campaign. That's not an obstacle Harper faces.)
Harper is able to do in 2015 what he wished he could do in 2003. He is going to war with no idea of how long it may last (longer than shorter one suspects) and with no assurance that Canada will be able to avoid committing boots on the ground somewhere down the road. And the government has no exit strategy to turn to if the war proves to be unwinnable.
Last week's Commons debate produced plenty of partisanship and posturing, but a dearth of clear thinking about the degree of the ISIL threat, the actual need for Canadian military involvement, and the anticipated effectiveness of that involvement.
Perhaps it is unrealistic to expect clear thinking when the country is on the road to an election. Harper needs this war. Back in 2003, he wanted to push the Chrétien Liberals into the Iraq War. Now that he is in power he doesn't need any pushing. Today, he is jumping of his own volition without knowing where he and the country may land.