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Chrétien’s ‘uncomfortable’ meeting with George W. Bush

The last time a meeting between a president and PM was so awkward, Bush was urging Chrétien to join the fight against Iraq


 

Welcome to this week’s free story from The Maclean’s Archives.
In the wake of the much-anticipated and somewhat awkward first meeting between Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and President Donald Trump, Maclean’s daily archival piece casts its eye back to the last time a meeting was as uncomfortable—the one between Jean Chretien and George W. Bush, who was fomenting support for his war in Iraq. Chretien would eventually say no. Julian Beltrame reported for Maclean’s on the meaning of the meeting. Learn more or sign up now for your 30-day free trial.

IT WAS BY MOST ACCOUNTS an uncomfortable meeting when Jean Chrétien sat down with George W. Bush for 45 minutes in Detroit’s Cobo Hall last week. The Prime Minister had earlier intoned that he was looking forward to hearing from the President why Washington believed that Baghdad bully Saddam Hussein must be replaced. Canada needed evidence linking him to al-Qaeda or other terrorist organizations, Chrétien said, or it would not support a pre-emptive assault on Iraq. But once inside the room, the Prime Minister made no request for proof. U.S. sources say they were prepared for tough questions. None came —nor did Bush volunteer any new information. Chrétien offered no political or military support; Bush never asked for any.

Instead, the meeting ran out of steam. U.S. officials had already told their Canadian counterparts they lacked evidence of a direct link between Iraq and al-Qaeda’s deadly Sept. 11 attacks. That was now deemed irrelevant—action must be taken because of the threat posed by Saddam’s determined drive to acquire chemical, biological and nuclear weapons, they said. To Chrétien, that didn’t make the Iraqi regime any more dangerous than that of North Korea, Iran or Libya. But Bush, who so far has the support only of Britain’s Tony Blair, asked Chrétien to keep an open mind. Chrétien told him to take his case to the United Nations Security Council. “I want him to go and have an international coalition, and convince others in the United Nations,” Chrétien told reporters after the meeting. “It’s extremely important to follow the processes of the United Nations.”

Would Canada ultimately withhold support for a U.S.-led initiative against Iraq? Given past precedent, many observers said, that was unlikely. And last week, Bush did try to reach out to the world. Even a short month ago, it seemed unlikely that the President would deign to go before the UN General Assembly as a supplicant. He and his hardline advisers had long held what they regarded as the ineffectual appeasers at the UN in contempt. But in the meantime, several of his father’s key advisers—some having served George Bush Sr. during the 1991 Persian Gulf War against Iraq—went public with cautions against hasty, unilateral action. Even some key Republicans in Congress demanded that Bush make the case. And public opinion polls revealed as much U.S. skittishness about a possible war as could be found elsewhere—only 30 per cent of Americans favouring military action against Saddam without allied backing, according to one sounding.

So Bush acceded to make his pitch at the UN, two days after his meeting with Chrétien. But it was as much a warning as an appeal for support. What is at stake, he said, was the very credibility of the world body. In a stern, prosecutorial tone, the President noted that Iraq is already in contravention of UN Security Council resolutions dating to before the Gulf War. To save his skin, Bush pointed out, Saddam had agreed in 1991 to allow UN inspectors into Iraq to dismantle his weapons program, then repeatedly blocked their efforts. “Are Security Council resolutions to be honoured, or cast aside without consequence?” Bush asked delegates at the UN. Make no mistake, he continued—if the UN abrogates its responsibility, “by heritage and by choice, the United States of America will make that stand.”

Bush offered no new evidence that Saddam is a clear and present danger. And administration officials have said that irrefutable proof against Saddam does not exist. What can be deduced is at best circumstantial. The London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies warns that Iraq has the capacity to build a nuclear bomb within months—if it could obtain radioactive material. The U.S. claims Iraq recently tried to acquire high-strength aluminum tubes that could be used in the construction of nuclear weapons—but also for other, peaceful purposes. The UN itself has said satellite photographs show new buildings on sites formerly suspected of being used for weapons development, but “the satellites don’t see through roofs,” noted Hans Blix, the UN’s chief weapons inspector.

The case then is one of could, maybe, if. But Saddam has already deployed biological and chemical weapons. “The first time we may be completely certain he has nuclear weapons is when, God forbid, he uses one,” Bush declared. And that may in fact be sufficient for the 15 members of the Security Council.

Throughout the week, one possibility gained momentum: that the UN would pass a resolution giving Washington the approval to—in the cloaked language of diplomacy—“effect a regime change” in Baghdad if Saddam does not accede to weapons inspections. French President Jacques Chirac set the wheels in motion by calling on Saddam to readmit inspectors. France and Britain are expected to table a UN resolution on the issue as early as this week, including authorizing all necessary force if Iraq fails to comply. Should it pass—and Iraq then either refuses to allow inspectors in or obstructs their work—the U.S. will likely claim to have obtained international sanction to launch an air and land campaign against Iraq.

Where would that leave the Chrétien government? Officials insist Canada will under no circumstances join a unilateral or bilateral campaign. Such a position is in keeping with Chrétien’s anti-militaristic instincts—in 1991, while in opposition, he famously ventured that Canada should join the U.S.-led coalition against Iraq, but withdraw as soon as the first bullet was fired. And Chrétien’s skepticism of the good-vs.-evil world view favoured by Bush came through in a taped interview with CBC, aired on the anniversary of Sept. 11, in which he tried to find other motivations beside pure barbarism for the terrorist attacks.

While not laying blame on the victimas was reported in some Canadian newspapers—Chrétien did venture that there is a price to be paid for the growing disparity between the have and have-not nations of the world. “You cannot exercise your powers to the point of humiliation for the others,” he noted, referring to the U.S. and the West in general. Later, the Prime Minister’s Office released a transcript of the interview, calling the newspaper accounts “a gross misconstruction.” And to ensure that the U.S. administration did not take offence, it sent the transcript to the White House. But the statement, no matter how it’s interpreted, underscored the different view of the Prime Minister toward the gathering crisis over Iraq.

How would the U.S. regard a Canadian refusal to participate in a unilateral attack on Iraq? Not as an affront, says retired Canadian Gen. Lewis MacKenzie, “because we’d have lots of company.” Christopher Sands, director of the Canada Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, said the Bush administration would likely shrug off Canada’s non-participation so long as Ottawa refrained from direct criticism. But with Chrétien having challenged Bush to go through the UN, a Security Council ultimatum would make it difficult for Canada to sit on the sidelines, MacKenzie added. Failure to join an American action under the UN banner could also damage Canada’s reputation in the world.

No matter what Canada says, it can’t easily escape involvement even if the Security Council fails to sanction military force. In that case, Bush would argue the UN has shirked its duty. And Canada is already involved in the U.S.-led war against terror. At a minimum, it could redeploy the destroyer, frigate and two Aurora maritime patrol aircraft currently patrolling near Afghanistan. As well, MacKenzie says Canada’s military, despite its diminished capacity, is still capable of mounting a ground force of about 1,200. “There’s going to be some dirty work in the villages and towns in the areas outside Baghdad, so there’s lots of work for good light infantry,” he explained. “You attach to them people who have laser designators to guide in bombs, and Canada could make a significant contribution.”

At week’s end, Ottawa’s apparent opposition to joining in a U.S.-led campaign was showing signs of withering. Foreign Affairs Minister Bill Graham, prior to addressing the UN General Assembly, praised Bush for placing the issue before the Security Council. Does that meet Canada’s requirements for joining a campaign, he was asked. “Let’s have that discussion after the Security Council,” he responded. But government officials noted that Canada has a long tradition of being counted in when Western interests are challenged, from both world wars to Korea, Iraq, Kosovo and Afghanistan. And for a prime minister in search of a legacy, counting himself out in a conflict to alter the face of the Middle East could prove too costly a gamble, both in terms of his place in history, and Canada’s in the world.

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