So how do you judge leadership? Take poor Paul Martin. Did anyone ever want so much, for so long, to be a leader?

He tries to sound like one. He starts almost every sentence: I will be very clear — and then isn’t clear at all. “One thing is very clear,” he said of the scandal around his B.C. organizers, “when the investigation is complete, if there are any consequences flowing from that, we will act very rapidly and decisively.” Read that over, it gets murkier each time. Pierre Trudeau’s former media coach, Patrick Gossage, says Paul Martin has a unique ability to sound forceful and indecisive at the same time. You could call it forceful mush.

He often claims, as he did in his year-end interview with Peter Mansbridge: “I really think we are at the beginning of one of the most significant decades in this country’s history.” I wish someone would ask him why this decade will be so special. I’m starting to think it’s because it is his decade, at last; anything trivial would be such a letdown.

Then, when he grapples with a serious issue, like the invasion of Iraq, and finally says something clear, it is also a bit foolish and even, I’d say, dangerous. Here is what he told the CBC: “At what point is it justifiable to . . . invade another country? . . . I really believe that this is a major international debate . . . the world has got to deal with . . . we cannot allow oppression . . . to take place . . . and simply ignore it.”

A debate on general criteria for replacing oppressive regimes is a waste of time. Even if you established benchmarks for regime change, their application to specific cases would always come up; there would be disagreements, exceptions and unanticipated situations.

This is not the simple world of big business that Paul Martin came from, where all concerns can be reduced to a numerical entry on a bottom line and measured. This is the real world of genocide, suicide and terrorism.

Besides, the problem with invasions and overthrows is not deciding whether this or that regime should be tossed, because nations will disagree on whom to overthrow, and the world lacks a CEO who can call the final shot. In international affairs, you have a system of sovereign states and partially independent actors. If someone acts without the consent of others, he is inviting retaliation, formation of counterblocs, terrorism, etc.

So the issue becomes not why to intervene, but how to decide when to intervene. Can anyone invade on their own hook, or is there a mandatory international process, however flawed and tenuous, to rein in the results? This is why Canada abstained from the war: a fear of the precedent and its consequences. It is the spectre of lawlessness that makes people everywhere fear the United States, because of the kind of chaotic world it encourages.

It is stunning that Paul Martin, whose father played a role in creating the United Nations, seems to ignore this issue of building a global order in order to devise abstract criteria for dumping bad guys.

Finally, his response is basically ignorant and subservient to U.S. propaganda. The United States did not say it was going to invade Iraq because of oppression. It said Iraq had dangerous weapons of mass destruction, and was linked to al-Qaeda. When those claims collapsed, the United States switched to oppression. Paul Martin talks as if that was their motive all along.

Now contrast that to the views of Howard Dean, leading contender for the Democratic presidential nomination in the United States. He opposes the invasion because it made the United States “no safer” from terror. That’s it, two words, three syllables. They are neither foolish, irrelevant nor clearly false. It’s a limited achievement. He does not say the invasion made the United States less safe, by increasing support for terrorism and fundamentalism, rather than undermining them. Nor does he relate the rise of terror to U.S. policies such as support for Islamic fundamentalism in the 1980s. (As Eqbal Ahmad often said, terrorism has no justification, but it does have a history, and if you want to defeat it, you better understand your role in that history.)

Governor Dean does not even challenge the usual U.S. personalization of all conflict, so that getting Osama or getting Saddam is the ultimate goal. On this and other matters, he’s no radical.

But it’s the United States, and the guy is a daredevil in normal terms. He has broken with the famed bipartisan consensus on foreign policy. Republicans pray he will be their opponent. Everyone with a degree in punditry says he is too extreme for mainstream opinion. Clinton Democrats are apoplectic.

What you might argue is that political leadership is precisely the ability to move and shift what has been too rigidly defined as the mainstream, rather than catering to it or wandering off into Martinesque fantasies about what might matter in the world if it were a different place.


Rick Salutin

Rick Salutin is a Canadian novelist, playwright and critic. He is a strong advocate of left wing causes and writes a regular column in the Toronto Star.