In some ways the unseemly cackle of glee in Jean Chrétien’s birthday boast this winter that he was very glad his government had decided to keep Canada out of the Iraq war was understandable. After ”œYou won the lottery,” ”œWe told you so” are probably the four most satisfying words in the English language, and for Canadians never more so than when directed at Americans. The abiding popularity of Rick Mercer’s tedious one-joke ”œTalking to Americans” TV specials is grounded on our bedrock conviction that Americans are ignorant and stupid, stupid and ignorant, and never more ignorant and stupid than in their one truly unforgivable lapse in sophistication, their decision to be ignorant and stupid about us. And we think they’re self-centred.
Needless to say, to those Canadians who prefer their cultural analysis in caricature the most stupid and ignorant of all Americans is George W. Bush and the increasingly difficult dénouement of his vengeful decision to go to war against Saddam Hussein is merely his just desserts. Acting against the best advice ”” we know it was the best advice; it was from us ”” the Americans made their bed of horrors; now let them sleep in it.
However satisfying, schadenfreude isn’t a policy. So what is our policy on Iraq?
The Americans say they are trying to establish a pluralist democracy in Iraq. Leaving aside the popular-in-Toronto Chomskyite view that it’s really all about oil and Halliburton, what is our position?
A Gallic, world-weary sophistication? That democracy would be nice but it’s simply not possible in that part of the world? No middle class. No democratic tradition. Too many warring ethnic groups. Too strong a fundamentalist streak in religious affairs. So the best we can aim for is dictators like the Shah or Saddam? Saddam had his dark side but he a) stifled civil war b) wasn’t a mullah and c) didn’t persecute women. Maybe we should invite him back?
Conscientious objection? That democracy may have been possible for Iraq but you can’t get it from the barrel of a gun? How would you have got it then? Would Saddam have abdicated? Would Uday or Qusay have gone into taxidermy instead of carrying on the family business? How long would Iraqis have had to wait for their chance at fair elections and an open society? The Saudi foreign minister told Charlie Rose recently that a better strategy would have been to surround Saddam and wait him out. The world didn’t really get Saddam’s attention ”” the weapons inspectors certainly didn’t get his respect ”” until 100,000 US troops showed up in the desert. How long could the troops have waited?
Candid cravenness? That democracy is still possible but the cost is simply too high? A democratic Iraq would shake the foundations of the Middle East in a wonderfully salutary way but, judging by recent events, the cost may be high. Not Vietnam-high (6,249 combat deaths in 1969 alone) but too high for US public opinion (more than 115 in April 2004). Democracy in Iraq is fine in principle. More power to the Iraqis if they get it ”” and more security for the rest of us. But it’s not worth sending young Canadians to die for. So our policy is that we deeply appreciate what the Americans are doing but won’t ourselves volunteer for duty? (Full and honest disclosure: though favouring Iraqi democracy I would not myself go there at the moment. On the other hand, professional Canadian soldiers might willingly accept harder trade-offs.)
Hopeful multilateralism? That democracy is still possible but only if the United Nations takes over? A UN mandate might make ”œordinary Iraqis” happier but the insurgents seem to hate Italians, Spaniards, Dutch and Japanese or in fact anyone who isn’t Iraqi (or Sunni or Shia, depending on which insurgents you’re talking about) as much as they hate Americans. How many hit-and-run insurgents and how many tons of explosives does it take to make a country ungovernable? Probably just a few thousand of each. If the US is having trouble suppressing a determined insurgency, will the UN do better? If the UN invites the US to stay and help keep order, will ordinary Iraqis notice the difference? If they do, will the insurgents all melt away once UN-supervised elections are announced? Then again, can elections really be held while an insurgency is going on? And how about the robustness of any democracy the UN would impose? Is robust democracy what most of Iraq’s neighbours want? Do those neighbours have more of a say with the UN in charge or the US?
Self-righteousness is deeply satisfying. Moral superiority is the Canadian way. But they are not a policy. We always tell the Americans we’re their friends. When your friends dig themselves into a hole, you don’t look down gloating.