In Praise of Straddling, Uh, Dithering

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Jean Chrétien “has dithered so long that ... no one cares what Canada does.” - Andrew Coyne in The National Post

Personally, I’m in favour of some dithering on tough choices, from hockey trades all the way to wars. Dithering is human, even reassuring. It’s like hearing informed people start by saying: “It’s hard to know if... ” You feel they’ve given due thought. Anyway, what matters is the decision, not an aura of decisiveness around it; that has more to do with projecting self-confidence. I always dither when I’m about to write something that may offend my employers at The Globe and Mail (their version of the Chrétien dither was his “Canadian straddle”), which might have consequences for me and mine, though, in the end, I hope to overcome all fear and reach a courageous and principled blah-blah-blah...

As for nobody caring what Canada does: Well, clearly people at the National Post care. So do those at The Globe: yesterday’s op-ed page was a pastiche of whimpering over Canada’s rejection of the U.S. war. The State Department cares. I imagine Mexico, which is even more vulnerable to U.S. economic retaliation than we are and which also rejected war, cares a lot.

The Globe’s editorial complained that “Canada’s Iraq policy barely casts a shadow. Neither does the Prime Minister.” But, actually, it’s the figure who treads carefully in the steps of the overshadowing one who casts no shadow. Americans know this. Gary Cooper stands tall in High Noon, and casts a famous shadow, precisely because he stands apart. In fact, this is one of the few times in recent history that Canada has cast a shadow, and it’s an odd experience.

“Canada can’t remain aloof indefinitely,” said The Globe. Peter Mansbridge said on the CBC we were “sitting on the sidelines.” But you can argue our policy does the opposite.

At least the Chrétien stand unleashed Alliance Leader Stephen Harper to finally sound — and look — impassioned. (“The Prime Minister’s actions are gutless — these guys are just reading the polls.”) Unfortunately, he managed to simultaneously slough off his party’s finest tradition: a commitment to democracy not just at elections but through recalls, referendums and — why not? — polls. Preston Manning’s best moments came when he accepted constituents’ views on matters such as the death penalty, though they conflicted with his own. Even John Manley sounded more democratically attuned, in his unique way: “My gosh, we’re a sovereign country. We have to be able to take a position... different from the U.S.”

Everyone is worried about American retaliation: long lines at the border, harassment of landed immigrants and citizens, intransigence on softwood lumber — hey, wait a minute, that’s already all happening. The late Herb Denton, The Washington Post’s reporter here, had a different take: “The day Canada finally stands up to the U.S. is the day the U.S. will finally respect it.” He was talking about the free-trade deal, but this war would serve as well. I’d add, from my observations, that it may not happen instantly, but if you stick to it till they know you’re serious, then eventually, grudgingly, respect will come.

And if not now, when? All previous postwar U.S. military eruptions, however you judged them, were one-offs: Vietnam, the 1991 gulf war, Kosovo, etc. This one is avowedly the first in a limitless chain of assertions of U.S. power. It means destruction of the frail system of global order that the UN represents. Even scarier: in earlier conflicts, only Westerners in the military were at direct risk; now we all are, and our families, not from Iraq, but from small, crazed, outlaw groups that learned on September 11 how much damage they can do, with little or no state support — and that are being consciously provoked by U.S. policies.

So I’d call this Jean Chrétien’s finest hour. He seems to have recovered his common touch, always his strong suit, but which he seemed to misplace around the time he reamed out a Montréal waitress during a CBC town hall. His highly stimulated critics don’t seem to grasp this. The Globe lamented that “Canada effectively gave France authority over whether Canadian troops could invade Iraq.” France? What about the Canadian people, who are speaking clearly? This renewed attention to the popular will goes with another recent Chrétien initiative: campaign finance reform. If elections are no longer dominated by corporate money, then future prime ministers may feel freer than Jean Chrétien did to attend to those who chose them.

It’s endlessly intriguing how differently people can find the same events. Margaret Wente wrote in this space yesterday: “As for how history judges Canada — well, I’m ashamed to think about that.” Me? For the first time in about twenty years, I feel a bit easier on that score.

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