Harper's small but important lie on Iraq
Sep 27, 2014

Harper's small but important lie on Iraq

Harper got caught in a lie important enough that the US Secretary of Defence's office took the somewhat rare move of embarrassing Harper by telling everyone it was indeed a lie.

Namely, as reported by Global News,  Harper made something of a big show that the US was asking for Canadian help in the newest war in Iraq. Turns out, it was the other way around, where Harper asked the Americans if Canada could help out and the document Harper was referring to was a response to this.

Now, does it really matter who asked whom first? At the end of the day, after all, it should be the actual decision to engage or not that matters, and a little change in the initial framing doesn't have a large consequence. However, I argue both that it does matter and, further, that the lie is telling of the larger structural relationship between the Canada (and other middle powers like Canada) and the US.

Firstly, going to war is a big deal and our leaders have a basic responsibility to be transparent about the motivations that leads to the decision to engage. We have seen in the past (ironically with Iraq being the most egregious example) how distortions in the initial framing can lead to public support for a war that subsequently proves to be a complete disaster whose initial framing was entirely bogus. Leading aside the question of whether Canada should or should not engage in Iraq, that decision should be made objectively without our leaders trying to falsely spin the scenario into one that is more politically palpable.

I once wrote a post that discussed how middle powers like Canada - or more correctly their leaders, if we wish to avoid the anthropomorphizing - want to bolster their international credibility by being participants in global actions like wars. They wish to be seen as active participants who have influence and power. Great powers (mainly the US) mainly want these international coalitions that include partners like Canada because it lends legitimacy to their actions. These rather different aims lead to the broad international coalitions in wars like Afghanistan.

As Wikileaks cables documented after the fact, when it came to Iraq, Canada quietly offered to help out with various naval and logistical support. It was clear to Jean Chretien that the Canadian public didn't want "boots on the ground" but whatever else help Canada could be behind the scenes they were more than willing, as long as publicly it appeared that Canada was against the war. The Americans rebuffed this. The point was that the US didn't care about the little bit of logistical support, they wanted the legitimacy that would only come from Canada being loud, prominent participant, not a quite help on the sides.

This situation repeats that lesson. The middle power, Canada, wants to be involved, it wants that perception of influence and importance on the world stage. But Harper knows as well as Jean Chretien knew that the Canadian public generally doesn't like wars and framing the war in a way acceptable to the public is of key importance. Here, it was that we were responding to a request for help from the Americans opposed to trying to elbow ourselves into the grown up table is key. For the superpower, however, the little bit of logistical support and a few F-18's that Canada may offer are likely not that important. What is important is the legitimacy that a Canadian inclusion would provide to the war. That legitimacy is undermined when it appears like the Americans are trying to bully the Canadians into being included but considerably strengthened when it appears as if it is Canada who is trying to join in on the noble fight.

Paul Calandra's parliamentary apology:
This same basic point was emphasized in this weeks charade during Question Period. Mulcair asked a perfectly reasonable question about the length of engagement and Parliamentary Secretary to the PM Paul Calandra responded with a complete non sequitur, which led to something of a tangle between Mulcair and the Speaker and, finally, after much derision in the media, a tearful yet still nonsensical apology from Calandra. That almost all answers (and a good number of the questions) ever asked or answered in Question Period are just ridiculous partisan trolling as being obvious to anyone who has ever tuned in and speaks to a much larger problem in our Parliamentary system, particularly during majorities where the majority party can simply evade any semblance of transparency.

In this specific issue, here we are again musing over the idea of contributing to a war - and issue one might think is of some importance - and the Conservatives are still quite happy (for Calandra's remarks were clearly appreciated by caucus) complete evading any attempt to have any form of dialogue on the issue. What we get is Harper falsely trying to frame the issue and getting rebuffed for his lies from the Americans, while in Parliament his secretary makes absolute zero attempt to engage in any serious way. This is how we choose to go to war in Canada.

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