‘On the Right Side of History’ – Jean Chrétien’s post 9/11 Foreign Policy

Jean Chrétien’s post 9/11 foreign policy decisions were essentially the right ones.  Canada’s involvment in Afghanistan was both a necessary and legitimate.  Keeping Canada out of Iraq was a critical achievement, and cemented Chrétien’s legacy.

The terrorist attacks of September 11th 2001 led to two subsequent American-led wars. I will argue Jean Chrétien’s foreign policy decisions during this time guaranteed that Canada would be remembered as a strong asset of the NATO alliance by participating in Afghanistan while also as a country that would not follow the Americans into a unnecessary an illegitimate war in Iraq. I will demonstrate the 2001 war in Afghanistan, was both a necessary and legitimate for both the Canada and the United States. This means that an invasion of Afghanistan had to occur (it was necessary) and that the war was approved of internationally (it was legitimate). I will demonstrate that the Iraq mission did not meet the goals American government, it was therefore unnecessary and a mistake. Subsequently, not only did Jean Chrétien’s post 9/11 foreign policy decisions guaranteed Canada would be remembered both as a strong asset to NATO and not a country that would commit the same mistakes as the US, by speaking out publicly about the Iraq war Chrétien solidified his legacy as a in the liberal tradition exemplified by Lester B. Pearson wherein Canada could act as a voice of restraint for American aspirations. Essentially, Chrétien’s post 9/11 foreign policy decisions were the right ones, in this way both Canada and Chrétien remained on the right side of history.

Afghanistan, the necessary and legitimate war
The war in Afghanistan was a necessary reaction to the 9/11 attacks for both Canada and the United States. After the initial 9/11 terrorist attack, it immediately became apparent the 9/11 attacks were orchestrated by Osama bin Laden, the leader of the Al-Qaeda terrorist network. An American mission launched with Al-Qaeda as a target was necessary because Al-Qaeda presented a clear threat – it had attacked the American homeland. An attack on Afghanistan was necessary by extension because Afghanistan’s Taliban government supported Al-Qaeda. Osama bin Laden “supplied the Taliban not just with significant financial support, but also with cadres of fanatical, experienced fighters. In return, the Taliban ceded control of training camps in eastern Afghanistan to Al-Qaeda and provided the latter with the sort of secure base that was a terrorists dream.” Afghanistan, “the country where the 9/11 plot was hatched” was essentially a terrorist safe-haven – it was therefore necessary for the United States to invade. On October 4th 2001 George Robertson, the Secretary-General of NATO invoked Article 5 of the Washington Treaty for the first time in NATO’s history. Article 5 states that an attack on one member state would be considered an attack on all member states. Member states (including Canada, a founding member) were thus legally committed and obligated to come to the defense an NATO ally that was attacked. Canada’s involvement in Afghanistan was therefore also necessary – its NATO ally was attacked. Thus Chrétien’s decision to invade ensured Canada would be remembered as a strong NATO ally, and in this way Canada remained on the right side of history.

The invasion of Afghanistan was legitimate because it was deemed legitimate internationally by the United Nations. On September 12th 2001 the UN General Assembly issued a unanimous declaration of solidarity for the American people. Security Council Resolution 1378 which passed unanimously on November 14th 2001 called for a change in government for Afghanistan. Resolution 1383 – which passed unanimously – endorsed the Afghan Interim Authority (the new Afghan Government) on December 6th 2001. Resolution 1386 – which also passed unanimously – authorized the establishment of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) to assist the Afghan Interim Authority (the government replacing the Taliban) to maintain security in Afghanistan. Even countries historically at-odds with American aggression, such as Russian and China who are both permanent veto-holding Security Council members, deemed legitimate a US and NATO intervention which would replace the Taliban.

Jean Chrétien, the Pragmatist
Jean Chrétien was a pragmatist – he never acted rashly when it came to foreign policy decisions. “Chrétien rejected the idea of a formal speech in favour of a routine scrum in the commons lobby,” he did not even call a full Cabinet meeting. In response to Blair’s visit to Washington, Chrétien stated: “‘I never thought of going to Congress to listen to a speech by the President. You know, it’s just not a normal thing to do.’” This displays a critical element of Chrétien’s personality. As Lawrence Martin, a prominent Canadian journalist and Chrétien biographer argues, “in crisis situations, Chrétien, aides noticed, had a tendency to under react. He wasn’t about to go along with the pack until he had stepped back and taken a long look.” This pragmatism would prove essential as Chrétien skilfully guided Canadian policy in reaction to the events of 9/11. He would invade Afghanistan when doing so was necessary. However Chrétien would not overreact, as the Americans inevitably would, and he would not commit the same mistake as the Americans, a mistake the British would make. Balancing these two forces ensured Canada remained on the right side of history.

Iraq, the mistake
The invasion of Iraq was seen as necessary by the Bush administration, but would prove to be unnecessary because it would end up working against American interests. The first way it worked against American interests is by evaporating the solidarity felt towards the US. The invasion of Iraq, in the words of French President Jacques Chirac, would “‘break-up the international coalition against terrorism.’” Countries like France, Germany, and Russia who all supported the war in Afghanistan would oppose American aggression towards Iraq.

The second way the Iraq war the worked against US interests is by creating a situation where Pakistan and Iran could harass American regional interests. The decision to invade Iraq allowed the Taliban to establish itself in the tribal areas of Pakistan, Iraq “was critical to convincing Musharraf that the US was not serious about stabilizing the region, and that it was safer for Pakistan to preserve its own national interest by clandestinely giving the Taliban refuge.” Furthermore one of the biggest beneficiaries of the Iraq war was actually Iran – Iraq’s regional rival. Zalmay Khalilzad, the former American ambassador to Iraq and later to the UN, claimed the Iraq invasion “‘helped Iran’s relative position in the region, because Iraq was a rival of Iran,’” – Iran subsequently supported Hezbollah and Hamas.

The most critical way the Iraq war worked against American interests is the fact that the decision to invade jeopardized the chance for victory in Afghanistan, the initial war that was a necessary response to 9/11. In 2003 Donald Rumsfeld believed the job was almost done in Afghanistan, “the challenges were stabilization, development, and nation-building. There was no sense that the Taliban had withdrawn to the safety of the mountains and were reorganizing and regrouping . . . this kind of strategic retreat is hardly new in the history of guerrilla warfare.” Journalist and author Ahmed Rashid’s book Descent into Chaos argues the Bush administration squandered an opportunity to rebuild Afghanistan – and thus defeat the Taliban. Rashid argued Afghanistan’s agriculture industry needed investment to “revive public morale in the countryside and convince people of the worthlessness of the Taliban.” But this kind of nation-building was anathema to the Bush administration. Bush, Condeleeza Rice (the national security advisor), Dick Cheney (the vice president), and Rumsfeld “had all, very publicly, gone on record . . . deploring the use of military force for this purpose.” In 2000 Bush stated, “I don’t think our troops ought to be used for what’s called nation-building – I think our troops ought to be used to fight and win wars.” Rice had stated she did not want “the 82nd Airborne Division walking children to kindergarten.” The Bush administration was more concerned with fighting and winning wars – but nation-building was what was needed to defeat the Taliban. When the Pentagon’s own Defence Science Board requested that stabilization and reconstruction operations be set as core military tasks, the request was ignored. Dan K. McNeill the Commander of ISAF decided to tell the Bush administration what was needed to win Afghanistan in 2008. “The American force needed to be increased by 50 percent, he said.” McNeill never got his troops because these troops were engaged in Iraq. The Taliban realised their greatest weapon was “American tentativeness, an unwillingness by Bush or other officials to commit troops, money, and resources.” “As resources shifted west, toward Baghdad, plans for a reconstruction program evaporated. The initial appearance of an easy victory was masked by the fact that the Taliban had never been defeated.” Afghanistan – a necessary and legitimate war – was abandoned in favour of Iraq. This focus on Iraq would mean the war in Afghanistan would be lost, and the necessary reaction to 9/11 turned was squandered.

The war in Iraq was not only unnecessary, it was also illegitimate. If the UN Security Council unanimous sanctioning of the war in Afghanistan legitimized it, the opposite proves the Iraq war was illegitimate. Despite Colin Powell’s 5 February 2003 speech to the UN, where he presented the US intelligence’s evidence that Iraq possessed WMD, the US failed to get a UN sanction for its mission. This failure occurred because it became apparent both France and Russia, veto-holding permanent members if the security council, would vote against such a resolution.

“Well Mr. President . . . show me the evidence!”

Chrétien simply didn’t buy it

Since 2001 the Canadian government was growing increasingly uncomfortable with the notion of an Iraq invasion, Ottawa simply did not see a link between 9/11 and Iraq. For Ottawa to see an invasion of Iraq as legitimate, it believed it must pose a threat. Foreign minister Bill Graham argued that “under international law, proof of an imminent threat of an attack would be required to justify a pre-emptive strike against Iraq.” But after a conversation where Bush attempted to convince Chrétien of the danger of Iraqi WMD, Chrétien’s senior policy advisor Eddie recalls Chrétien “shrugged and said, ‘I started my career as a small-town lawyer, and I heard nothing today from the president that would convince any judge in a rural courthouse.’” On 4 December 2002 statement before the Standing Committee of Foreign Affairs and International Trade, Charles – Philippe David stated that “the argument that the evil Iraq regime must be toppled now, immediately, without delay, rings hollow. The threat today is not so much greater as it was four years ago, certainly not enough to justify imminent war.” Put simply, both Chrétien and the Canadian government saw an invasion of Iraq for what it was, both unnecessary and illegitimate.

Cementing the legacy, Chrétien to Bush on Iraq like Pearson to LBJ on Vietnam

Chrétien came from a long liberal tradition wherein the party leaders had often acted as a voice of restraint against American adventurism . . . Lester Pearson had courageously challenged Lyndon Johnson, warning him against the escalation of the Vietnam War.” Like Pearson to Johnson, Chrétien expressed to Bush the fact that he remained unconvinced Iraq posed a threat. On the first anniversary of 11 September, before a scheduled meeting with Bush in Detroit, Chrétien told Bush to “show me” the evidence. “Ottawa, he announced, wanted proof.” He then “made it clear to the president that Canada’s participation in a war with Iraq would depend on the support of the United Nations.” Just as Former Prime Minister Lester B. Pearson denounced the America’s Vietnam war in a 1965 speech at Philadelphia’s Temple University, on 13 February 2003 Jean Chrétien delivered a speech to the Chicago Council on Foreign Relations denouncing the Iraq war. Goldenberg, lists Chrétien’s concerns with an invasion. Canada “had to consider whether participating in a war declared by non-Islamic western countries, without the support of the United Nations, against a government of an Islamic country, no matter how abhorrent the regime, would in the end bring about more democracy in the Middle East, or whether it would be responsible for provoking more terrorism in the world.” Chrétien argued it is important for the United States to act multilaterally, stated that “‘it is imperative to avoid the perception on a clash of civilizations. Maximum use of the United Nations would minimize that risk.’”

Still a pragmatist to the end
It is important to acknowledge that Chrétien’s pragmatist nature got the best of him; ultimately he would support a mission without UN support if Iraq posed a threat. Graham inferred that it was possible a situation might arise similar to that of Kosovo – where a mission was necessary for humanitarian reason, but a legitimising UN sanction was impossible due to the veto-holding power of Russia who saw Kosovo as in its sphere of influence. Therefore Chrétien would support a mission if it was necessary – if the US could prove Iraq posed a threat. Despite Powell’s UN speech, Chrétien was unconvinced that Saddam possessed WMD or that it posed a threat. Greg Fyffe, the former Executive Director of the International Assessment Staff in Ottawa stated that Chrétien and his staff’s instincts were that Iraq did not possess WMD, and Canadian intelligence did not contradict this notion. Chrétien would not be duped by an American attempt to make the invasion appear necessary with weak intelligence, and would express this opinion publicly, he therefore remains on the right side of history.

A critic of the argument that Canada remained on the right side of history by not invading Iraq would argue that Ottawa’s winter 2003 decision “to send two thousand troops back to Afghanistan on the eve of the Iraq war” allowed the United States to shift its military focus to Iraq. In this way Canada supported the Iraq war without directly invading Iraq and could therefore be seen as on the wrong side of history. I would argue Canada had already made the decision that Afghanistan was both necessary and legitimate and Canada’s commitment to troop escalation in Afghansitan was therefore worthwhile despite the US’s shift towards Iraq. As previously mentioned, this commitment could have neutralised the threat posed by Al-Qaeda and the Taliban had the Americans been committed to nation-building. Since the US and not Canada abandoned Afghanistan the fault lies with the American government.


Tony Blair ‘On the Wrong Side of History’
To fully appreciate the foreign policy fiasco Chrétien avoided by not invading Iraq one can examine British Prime Minister Tony Blair. Blair – who has been described as “America’s biggest admirer” – was so concerned with expressing solidarity to the US he would act irrationally. Britain would invade Iraq either because Blair believed the faulty intelligence presented or agreed with the preconceived American plan to intimidate other would-be aggressors. Either way Tony Blair’s Iraq legacy will be the same as Bush’s, he committed a foreign policy blunder. Luckily, Chrétien’s pragmatist nature would mean he would not be convinced by faulty intelligence and Canada would remain on the right side of history.

Conclusion, thanks for keeping us out of that mess
Charles – Philippe David’s 2002 parliamentary address denounces the Iraq war by comparing it to Vietnam. “The Iraq II Campaign would be the first major US-led invasion and occupation since Vietnam. It cannot be compared with other policing actions in Grenada in 1983 or Panama in 1989, and still less with other military interventions in the interim.” Because the American invasion of Iraq was and deemed unnecessary and illegitimate it is fair to say its legacy is that of a foreign policy mistake – perhaps the worst since Vietnam. Unlike Tony Blair, Jean Chrétien would not commit the same mistake the Americans would. Chrétien pragmatist nature would thus skilfully ensure Canada would both not be seen as a ‘free-rider’ by the US and NATO when it came to the necessary and legitimate war in Afghanistan and avoid a major foreign policy blunder when it cam to the unnecessary and illegitimate war in Iraq. His ability to speak publicly on this ensured Canada would be remembered this way. Indeed, today Canada’s decision not to participate in the Iraq War is widely considered to be one of Prime Minister Chrétien’s most important achievements. Prime Minister Jean Chrétien’s post 9/11 foreign policy decisions were ultimately the right ones, they ensured Canada would remain on the right side of history.

Works Cited
Bird, Tim and Alex Marshall. Afghanistan: How the West Lost its Way. London: Yale University Press, 2011.

“Chirac says France will veto U.N. Resolution on Traq.” PBS Online News Hour, last modified 10 March 2003.

David, Charles-Philippe. “Marching on Baghdad: The Risks of War.” House of Commons: Statement before the Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs and International Trade. Parliament of Canada Website, last modified 4 December 2002. http://www.parl.gc.ca/HousePublications/Publication.aspx?Pub=CommitteeMeetingMinu tes&Acronym=FAIT&Mee=14&Mode=1&Parl=37&Ses=2&Language=E

Fyffe, Greg. Current Adjunct Research Professor, University of Ottawa, Former Executive Director, International Assessment Staff. Personal Correspondence.

Goldenberg, Eddie. The Way it Works. Toronto: McClelland & Steward Ltd., 2006.

Heinbecker, Paul. Getting Back in the Game: A Foreign Policy Playbook for Canada. Toronto: Dundurn, 2011.

Hillmer, Norman and J.L. Granatstein. Empire to Umpire. Toronto: Thomson and Nelson, 2008.

Martin, Lawrence. Iron Man: The Defiant Reign of Jean Chrétien. Toronto: Viking Canada, 2003.

Rashid, Ahmed. Descent into Chaos. New York: Penguin Books Ltd., 2009.

Sanger, David E. The Inheritance. New York: Three Rivers Press, 2009.

Stein, Janice and Eugene Lang. The Unexpected War: Canada in Kandahar. Toronto: Viking Canada, 2007.

“United Nations Security Council Press Release SC/7234.” United Nations Website, last modified 6 December 2001.

“United Nations Security Council Press Release SC/7248.” United Nations Website, last modified 12 December 2001.

“United Nations Security Council Resolution 1378.” U.S. Department of State Website, last modified 14 November 2001.

“What is Article 5?” NATO Website, last modified 18 February 2005. http://www.nato.int/terrorism/five.htm



  1. Thomas Hauschildt

    great article! I agree that AFG was necessary and justified, though the NATO states did never invested sufficient military and civilian resources. In addition, as you argued, Iraq literally distracted the US and others from AFG and subsequently the mission failed. Good for Canada not to get involved in Iraq.

  2. Emily

    Back when the Iraq war was starting, I said I agreed with Chretien. Not enough proof for Iraq but agreed with Afghanistan. I was 22 at the time and was told I was a naive kid. When it became apparent that there were no WMD, same people told me: “well, the evidence was convincing.” What evidence?!

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