TORONTO -- Liberal prime minister Jean Chrétien's decision to break with U.S. President George W. Bush on the 2003 invasion of Iraq was a very public and rare expression of Canadian sovereignty that many critics here feared would jeopardize U.S.-Canada relations for years.
Privately for Chrétien, it was also one of the defining moments of his 40-year political career, including a decade as prime minister –- a bold declaration of independence and one that many Canadians supported despite this country’s record of joining previous U.S. military efforts, including the 1990-91 Persian Gulf War, Afghanistan War and Korean War.
“There was no big bitterness. There was certainly disappointment from the president, no doubt about it, and [British prime minister] Tony Blair, too,” Chrétien reflected ahead of the 10-year anniversary of Operation Iraqi Freedom.
“But we’re an independent country, and in fact it was a very good occasion to show our independence," he told The Huffington Post.
It was March 17, 2003, less than nine months before he would resign as one of Canada’s most successful prime ministers, when Chrétien stood up in the House of Commons and stated: “If military action proceeds without a new resolution of the [United Nations] Security Council, Canada will not participate.”
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His announcement was met with sustained applause from a majority of MPs. A 2003 poll for The Toronto Star indicated that seven-in-10 Canadians approved of his decision.
At the time, Canada was engaged in the U.S.-led war on terror in Afghanistan, where 158 Canadian Forces personnel would die by the time Canadian combat operations wound down in 2011.
Chrétien recalls feeling pressure from both sides of the Iraq debate: The populace appeared divided; many newspaper editorials and columnists pressed him to say yes.
Canada’s current Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper -- then the leader of the Opposition Canadian Alliance -- co-authored a letter to the Wall Street Journal telling Americans that he strongly disagreed with the prime minister and supported the war.
“This is a serious mistake,” Harper wrote, along with foreign affairs critic Stockwell Day. “The Canadian Alliance -- the official opposition in Parliament -- supports the American and British position because we share their concerns, their worries about the future if Iraq is left unattended to, and their fundamental vision of civilization and human values."
In 2008, Harper -- by then prime minister -- announced that he had changed his mind and now felt that the war was a mistake.
Chrétien, however, was steadfast that he would not commit troops without U.N. backing.
“It was a very difficult decision to make, because it was the first time there was a war where the Americans and the Brits were involved and Canada was not there,” he said. “But my view was there were no weapons of mass destruction, and we’re not in the business of going everywhere and replacing dictators. If we were to do that, we would be fighting every day.”
The U.S. launched its attack two days later with the backing of Bush’s “Coalition of the Willing,” a group of 49 countries that the U.S. said supported the mission despite the lack of authorization by the U.N. Security Council.
Paul Heinbecker, Canada’s ambassador to the U.N. until December, 2003, was Chrétien's eyes and ears inside the international body tasked with deciding whether it would authorize one of its most powerful members to attack another country.
In the months leading up to the invasion, the U.S. doggedly sought authority from the Security Council to enter Iraq and remove Saddam Hussein from power on grounds the dictator had amassed weapons of mass destruction and was “a danger to the world.”
Heinbecker reviewed the intelligence and called Chrétien frequently to offer advice. He opposed the war and proposed more time for U.N. weapons inspectors, led by Hans Blix, to look for Iraqi weapons of mass destruction.
“I was very skeptical of the intelligence that people were offering on the Iraq situation,” Heinbecker told The Huffington Post.
That skepticism, reflected in his reports back to Ottawa, conflicted with other assessments the prime minister received.
“He was being told by counterparts, notably the British, that this was a ‘slam dunk,’ that they would be getting their authorization to go to war, and it would be good for Canada to get on board,” Heinbecker said. “I told him there was no prospect of U.N. Security Council approval of a resolution mandating attacking Iraq. It just wasn’t going to happen –- nobody in New York was convinced of the necessity of the action.”
Heinbecker did not believe the pronouncements by the U.S. and Britain that Iraq was buying uranium from Africa, and he said it should have been clear to anyone paying attention that the allegations were highly doubtful.
He blames American hubris and emotion for the rush to war.
“Americans took the information and put exclamation marks where they should have been putting question marks,” he said. “They just wanted to kick somebody’s ass after 9/11, and Iraq was a case.”
The U.S. misjudged its support on the Security Council, especially since a number of sympathetic countries, including Ireland, Singapore and Colombia, had been replaced that year with more antagonistic ones such as Germany, Pakistan and Chile.
“If you’re looking for one word, it was hubris: They thought they could do damn near anything and that people would just fall in line," Heinbecker said. "That was partly how they miscalculated Ottawa, because they just presumed that if they wanted to do something, then Ottawa would go along with it. And Ottawa didn’t.”
Not only did Chrétien oppose the war, he offered advice to two new Security Council members from the Americas –- Mexico and Chile. Since Canada had recent experience on the body, having held a seat in 2000-2001, the newcomers pledged to follow Chrétien’s lead, further raising the ire of the United States.
The draft resolution to invade Iraq was abandoned on March 17, 2003, when it became clear that the U.S. and Security Council allies Britain –- another permanent member –- and Spain would fall well short of the nine affirmative votes required for action. The U.S. announced that diplomacy had failed and entered Iraq with its coalition.
Chrétien had candid conversations with both Blair and Bush well in advance of his declarative “no” in Parliament, giving them ample warning that Canada’s participation required a U.N. resolution.
Chrétien recalls telling Blair during a visit to South Africa in 2002 that he was not convinced that Hussein was harbouring weapons of mass destruction, the justification used for removing the dictator from power. He said that the U.S was choosing to go after Hussein instead of Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe because Iraq had oil and the African nation did not.
“I said we would work with them if there was a resolution, but if there was to be no resolution, I knew that we were not to be there," he said.
And at a ceremony at the Detroit-Windsor Ambassador Bridge in September 2002, Chrétien told Bush he didn’t believe there was enough proof to warrant a U.N. resolution.
Michael Kergin, the Canadian ambassador to the U.S. at the time and the self-described “nexus of diplomatic communication,” said he ensured that Chrétien's message was made clear at meetings with the U.S. National Security Council, State Department and the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
Kergin had participated in months of diplomatic planning, meetings held at the same time the U.S. was engaged in military planning. He believes the Bush administration was set on invasion, whether it had U.N. authorization or not, and it was just a question of timing. When it became apparent that the U.S. would fail at the U.N. and that Canada would not change its mind, Kergin was excluded from talks, he said.
Chrétien's announcement was no surprise to officials in the highest executive branches, as diplomats had been discussing their positions for months, he said.
Days after the invasion began, Paul Cellucci, the U.S. ambassador to Canada, issued a blunt message: “We are disappointed that some of our closest allies, including Canada, have not agreed with us on the urgent need for this military action against Iraq.”
But diplomatically speaking, the message was tame, Kergin said.
“Their strongest language, if you will, is that they were disappointed that Canada wasn’t part of the ‘coalition of the willing,’ and that’s not particularly strong diplomatic language,” he told The Huffington Post.
Behind the scenes, Kergin was dealing with bewildered members of the U.S. Congress, who found out that Canada would not participate in the mission only after Chrétien's announcement was picked up by U.S. networks. They accused Canada of being a “fair-weather friend” that abandoned its ally in its time of need, he said.
“I got a bit of heat from them,” Kergin said.
The fallout for Canada was minimal in the end. Some congress members were angry; some Americans boycotted Canadian products such as Quebec maple syrup; Bush’s visit to Ottawa scheduled for that May was cancelled.
But the feared hit to trade and military contracts awarded to Canadian companies never materialized.
“The thing about the U.S. is they separate capitalism from politics,” Kergin said, adding that the Pentagon appeared to be placated by Canada’s crucial role in Afghanistan.
That those “doom and gloom” consequences some had predicted did not occur had a historical precedent in Canada’s opposition to the Vietnam War, Heinbecker said.
“When you look back, it turned out (U.S. President Lyndon) Johnson was wrong, we were right, and there were virtually no consequences to our doing the right thing," he said. "The same thing turned out as regards to Iraq.”
Canada’s position proved to be prescient, Heinbecker said, as the Iraq war dragged on and American public opinion began to sour.
“History rendered it a terrible decision by the Americans,” he said. The war cost the U.S. an estimated $2 trillion and took as many as 189,000 lives.
Chrétien cited a recent Angus-Reid poll in which 55 percent of Americans said they believed Canada and other countries made the right call.
“Now that it looks like we made the right decision, some of them have told me, ‘You were very wise,’” he said.
Although these key Canadian players have no regrets about the country’s decision, Kergin and Heinbecker concede that Chrétien’s decision could have been delivered more diplomatically.
“They did the right thing, but they didn’t do it right,” Heinbecker said, recalling the “circus-like” response to the announcement made during the House of Commons’ rancorous Question Period.
In what should have been a solemn moment, there was an explosion of applause that Americans didn’t take well, he said.
Kergin said Canada could have been “more sophisticated” in its delivery. The moment the House erupted in cheers, he started making calls to his contacts, he said.
“I didn’t know when it would exactly happen, and I was suggesting to my people back home to give the Americans a bit of a heads up, and they decided that that wasn’t the right thing,” he said. “I think it was that part that probably got a little more publicity than needed and stoked a bit of irritation –- not the decision itself, because they knew it, but the precise timing and the manner of the announcement.”
But the former prime minister has no regrets about the way he told the world he was standing up to his neighbour.
“It felt that the people were waiting for a decision, and I thought that to announce it to the people of Canada first was very important,” Chrétien said.
“[The Americans] perhaps were surprised, but as [White House chief of staff] Andrew Card told me one day, ‘You have been very clear with us, you did not double-cross us. We were disappointed, but we knew that you had said that,’" he continued. “Some of them thought ‘at end of day you will come along anyway,’ and they were a bit surprised that I did not come along anyway.
“But they could not complain about the clarity of my position.”