Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Harper Got This One Right

Stephen Harper used to be a strong advocate of Canadian involvement in the war in Iraq. He did not maintain this position for long but sensibly changed his might and began to advocate a different role for Canada in world affairs. The fact that Harper changed his mind is not a weakness. Indeed, only a mature and sophisticated political leader who is committed to empirical reality can change his mind. I don't view it as "waffling" or "governing by the polls." I am glad to see leaders who will not persist in a particular course of action for ideological reasons or pigheadedness after they discover that their course of action was wrong. In this regard, Harper's arguments in favour of Canadian involvement in the Iraq war were clearly wrong. Why?

Well, they were wrong because the advocates of Canadian military involvement in the Second Gulf War made no sense. They used simplistic arguments ("if your buddy is in a fight in a bar") that were at best misguided and distorted analogies. War, folks, is not a bar fight. And -- rhetorical excess -- if I were you I wouldn't take anyone who couldn't tell the difference out for a beer. Hindsight is 20/20 so in considering this issue, I will -- for now -- avoid the "I told you so" type of argument that focuses on the mess that has followed in the wake of the American occupation of Iraq. I actually don't think hindsight is irrelevant. I'm a historian and so, you might imagine, I think hindsight is of some importance in the sense that I think history does provide lessons for today. I'll avoid the "I told you so" type of argument in order to make a different point: Canada properly avoided entering the war in Iraq for what were at the time very good reasons. What were those reasons?

Let me pick just one reason to focus on. At the time the US was looking for Canadian support, there were those who argued that we needed to support the US by becoming involved in the campaign against the Hussein government because we needed to maintain good relations with the US. Our economic life blood depended on it. We all know the stats: 80% of Canadian trade is with the US and since Canada has an export-driven economy, what goes on in the US is of some importance to Canada. Quite simply, Canada needs to maintain its access to the American market if Canadians want to maintain their standard of living. I'll gamble that they do and this is the very force of one of the argument put forward in favour of military involvement: upsetting the US government risked some sort of retaliation that could produce harmful economic effects on Canada.

This was a horrible argument in favour of entering the war. It borders, in fact, on unethical. This type of argument -- we should enter a war on the side of the US to curry their economic favour -- places Canadian economic self interest above all other considerations. In short, we decide in favour of war (or, against it) on the basis of the "bottom line." If there money is on the line, we go in. Other considerations are relegated to, at best, second place. What about the civilians who will be killed by our military action? Hussein was a horrible dictator. To describe his regime as repressive is a drastic understate of the highest order. Yet, the economic argument in favour of war is not about the Hussein regime or the civilians who would be killed in the conflict. It is about us and the money we can make by winning the favour of the American government. The civilians are irrelevant. Those who will die are irrelevant. And, if you don't believe civilians die in war, well ... you probably also believe that war is akin to a bar fight. Ethically, then, the economic argument in favour of war is premised on an intensely problematic disregard for the lives of people in other countries (in this case in Iraq).

But, it is worse than that. The economic argument in favour of war is also a callous disregard for the lives of Canadian soldiers, their reputations, and the honour of the Canadian military. In effect, it turns soldiers into expendable tools of economic development. They would be in Iraq fighting not to liberate oppressed populations, to aid an ally in its time of need (since the US clearly did not need Canadian military support), or to protect Canadians from an immediate threat, but so that Canadian industries could sell things to the US. In effect, the economic argument in favour of war turns the Canadian military into a mercenary force that is sold to the highest bidder. Is this what we want for our soldiers? Is this what we want to do to our military? Put differently, it is one thing, I think, for a government to order the military to fight a war of liberation or a war of national defense. It is another thing to ask the military to fight a war in a distant land against an enemy who poses no threat to us -- to kill others (including of necessity innocent civilians) and to die -- so that consumer goods can move freely the Canada/US border.

What is most bizarre about these types of arguments is that they are treated seriously. To my mind, the Canadian military has a reputation that is envious. Canada does not fight aggressive wars; it has "punched above its weight" in important international conflicts, it has fought "the good fight" in defense of people under threat, it has promoted peacekeeping. Mistakes have been made with the Canadian military. Lives have been needlessly lost and, in a couple of recent occasions, the military was asked to do jobs that it had not the training or manpower to do. Such qualifications, I think, does not detract from the enviable international reputation of Canada and its military. Yet, what was being proposed by the advocates of the economic rationale for war had nothing to do with this heritage. It devalued the Canadian military and placed it in the service of industry looking to maintain its market.

If we put all of this together, we get what I described above as a horrible argument for war: ignoring the lives of innocent civilians, abrogating a military heritage of high ideals, transforming the military into a mercenary force whose goal is to fight in distant lands so trucks continue to flow across the border, asking Canadians to kill and die for this objective. Such an argument for war devalues the lives of Canadian soldiers and civilians in other countries (in this case Iraq) alike. It is predicated on a rejection of what our military stands for.

What is more, none of this, it turns out, was needed. Despite forecasts of impending doom, the US did not close the border and, aside from some symbolic measures, took no actions against Canada. In other words, the economic rationale for war also mispainted Americans and their government. It portrayed them as vindictive and small minded. It portrayed them as a people -- and a government -- that could not reason (after all, nearly 20% of US exports go to Canada so economically penalizing Canada, say, but limiting economic interaction across the border so hitting economically at Canada would also harm the US) and would not reason. It would instead lash out. It portrayed them as a people, and a government, who had no respect for autonomous decisions reached by what is, for the US, a foreign country. The opponents of the war have been rightly criticized for stereotyping Americans. Yet, it seems to me, that the proponents of the economic argument for war paint at least as bleak a picture of the US.

There were other reasons why some people promoted Canadian involvement in the Iraq war. Those reasons bear consideration. I just don't have time to address them here. The economic argument -- one important argument that was made at the time -- is, however, deeply flawed. Not only does it disregard innocent lives, transform the Canadian military into a mercenary force, and is built of misleading analogies, it also deploys stereotypes of the irrational petty American. These arguments, in my view, just don't amount to good reasons for military engagement. If you care about the military and its history, believe that civilian lives are worth more than free flowing Canada/US border traffic, and think of the US as a complex and mature democracy ... well, I'd guess you think pretty much the same way I do.
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