Canada Foreign Policy
Monday, February 28, 2005

Mr. Dithers, War Gaming, The Cold War, and Canadian Independence

Who says the man waffles and is just plain incapable of making decisions?

Back on 17 February 2005 the prestigious British magazine The Economist, on its website, published an article describing Canada’s top politician as “Mr. Dithers.” The Prime Minister attempted to humour his way out the situation, saying he very much enjoyed the antics of the comic strip character. Some of his supporters claimed the jibe wasn’t all that serious; simply, some Canadian hacks had been using the sobriquet for some time, and somehow managed to slip the reference past the editors. Besides, claim the defenders, the magazine itself just isn’t that important, and when Dithers makes up his mind, he makes sure his decision-making is quick and decisive. But hold on, isn’t this the same Economist that Liberals, back in I think 2003, couldn’t stop quoting and flashing after it managed to conclude Canada was “cool”?

Right in the wake of the “Dithers” piece, the PM found himself, on 20 February 2005, in Brussels for a meeting of NATO leaders. While there, he may have had words with US leader George Bush. The President, on a mission of his own, found himself mired in a continental charm offensive. The presidential objective--heal the very deep wounds triggered by the politics leading up to the war in Iraq. Europe’s leaders returned smiles and appeared cordial, at least in front of the cameras. And with that, foreign affairs were pushed off the Canadian agenda, for a period you could almost time with a stopwatch.

Just when everything seemed to calm down, the real problems started up. No sooner had Dithers’ work overseas drawn to a close than our new ambassador to Washington said participation in missile defense was in actuality a non-issue. Why debate a fait accompli? According to Frank Mckenna, Canada’s being in NORAD made this country a part of the controversial program. “We are part of it now,” said McKenna [quoted in]. He appeared to be going off message, and even though Dithers, in the early days of occupying the PM post, hinted he would support the project, had done next to nothing to sell MD to the Canadian public. In fact, so little had been done to convince citizens of the merit of missile defense that over the past year opinion solidified behind rejecting any Canadian role. Dithers, backed into a corner, decided he had to speak out. And when his lips started moving on 24 February 2005 he said Ottawa would not take part, but stressed that no matter what, Canada would remain a staunch US ally.

At least some American media sources have correctly linked Dithers’ response to domestic Canadian politics. Clifford Krauss of The New York Times observes: “His support for a missile-defense system was consistent with more than a half century of Canadian national-security policy of sharing responsibility for continental defense with the United States, even in times when the two countries sharply disagreed on Cuba, Vietnam and most recently Iraq. But Martin, now prime minister, reversed course Thursday and said Canada would not take part in the development of a missile-defense shield, essentially because he faced a rebellion on the issue at a Liberal Party conference next month” [article reprinted by The Seattle Times, 27 February 2005. See]. But this is one response and one issue that likely cannot be contained within the parameters of domestic politics. When Washington learned what Dithers intended to say, reaction came swiftly. US Ambassador Paul Cellucci said: “Why would you want to give up sovereignty?…We don't get it. We think Canada would want to be in the room deciding what to do about an incoming missile that might be heading toward Canada” [CNN, 24 February 2005. See].

Let’s now stop, and make and perhaps test some assumptions. First, Dithers’ public reaction is neither final nor meant to be taken as official policy. After all, he dithered so long over the issue of missile defense, he may now start to backtrack, and already there may be intense behind-the-scenes diplomacy setting the stage for this eventuality. On the other hand, the PM may be in a position, given his slender minority government and less than stellar approval rating within Liberal ranks, where he must now live or die by his decision. This just might mean that NORAD has been rendered obsolete, and that it’s only a matter of time before the whole structure implodes. But let’s take issues to the logical, most pessimistic extreme, and say that Dithers’ decision has in fact accomplished two things: First, it has given Canada something it never really had—complete independence in foreign affairs; second, it has contributed to destabilizing an already severely damaged international alliance system in a world undergoing fundamental restructuring.

Yes, yes I understand worst case scenarios rarely if ever materialize, and that even the most powerful, formulating the direction of world politics, either don’t plan that far ahead or maybe envision outcomes that, for whatever reasons, remain hidden from the rest of us. In the scenario that follows, my only defense is that it’s all logical and not entirely out of the realm of the believable. It’s all akin to war gaming, without the military variables, and concentrating the equations on the political.

Let’s first go way back and just accept, for the sake of argument, the highly contentious premise that the Cold War is still with us. To be sure, the main conflict is consigned to the dustbin of history. The Soviet Empire is dismantled. But as is the case with all wars, there’s mopping up to be done. This is where the Middle East comes in. Back in the day, when the Evil Empire found itself bogged down in Afghanistan, supporting radical Islam was a way of using valuable proxies against Moscow. This meant that radical Sunni Muslim forces were to be given whatever backing they required. And being in league with such factions meant, and here I simplify crudely, seeing Islam through a very basic prism, a lens that showed: Sunni Muslim=relatively good, Shiite Muslim=relatively bad. With Soviet communism dead, pandering to Islamic extremism makes little sense. The objective next is to isolate, destroy Muslim extremism, and in doing so rebalance a fundamental set of equations; namely, now: Sunni Muslim=not so good, Shiite Muslim=not really necessarily all that bad. When the opportunity presents itself to engage, Iraq finds itself at war. The thinking is even further simplified: move against the entire region using Iraq as the base, maybe take a couple of years doing this, restructure the military infrastructure in the meantime, and retool and prepare for the next showdown with Asia’s rising power. The blueprint suggests the whole mopping up mission is not going to take more than a few years, after which most energy is to focus on Asia, where missile defense comes into play. Make sure to take the entire alliance with you, and tip them into action by offering up an ultimatum: “either with us or against us.” Reject the offer, action goes ahead anyway, and you’re shut out.

Well, the plan sounds excellent. But is it workable? What happens when circumstances force revisions to the timetable? In fact, is there time to salvage the strategy or is something much more drastic warranted? Nearly several years have gone by since the start of the war with Iraq, and not only is the region still volatile, mopping up in that country is showing no sign of being the easy task it ought to have been. Meanwhile, Europe, shut out of Iraq’s reconstruction, has turned to making deals with Iran, China, across Asia. What does that really do to the old status quo, for rapprochement between the new world and Old Europe? Meantime, China sensing weakness and an adversary hopelessly over-extended, may be making its own play for superpower status. For example, Beijing “has taken the lead in organizing an East Asian summit conference for next November that, according to Chinese and other observers, will formalize Chinese regional leadership in several aspects…A senior Chinese diplomat said it had not been decided whether the United States will be invited to attend and, if so, in what capacity. That the question of U.S. participation is even on the table dramatizes the shift in Asia's diplomatic landscape.” [China’s Quiet Rise Casts Wide Shadow,” by Edward Cody for Posted on 26 February 2005 at].

PMs Richard Bedford Bennett and Mackenzie King couldn’t do it nearly three-quarters of a century ago by attending all those colonial conferences. Trudeau didn’t manage it by patriating the Constitution over two decades ago. But the team of Chretien and Dithers has found success. The one managed it by keeping Canada from being dragged into one war; the other sealed the deal by vowing to keep us out of coming global conflicts. Does all this amount to independence or just diplomatic isolation? Will anyone in Washington now feel the urge to help Canada with trade problems? Is the Ottawa braintrust going to learn that defining some foreign policy issues in purely domestic terms may not represent cutting-edge thinking? Or, did Chretien and his successor develop this strategy for Canadian Independence ages ago, and now all that needs to be done is to figure out what to do with this freedom? No matter what happens, this is all just speculation, presented mostly for entertainment purposes. The whole affair may have been nothing more than Frank McKenna’s first audition for the PM’s job.

Stan Markotich
Submit comments to

Monday, February 21, 2005
  Coincidences? Prime Minister Paul Martin is now in Europe, and right about the time we found out the real PM’s identity is Mr. Dithers, news surfaces that only a few short months ago Tory leader George Bush came so close to sacking Foreign Affairs critic Stephen Harper:

Stan Markotich
Submit comments to 
Sunday, February 20, 2005
  Canada Wakes Up, and There’s the Middle East

I don’t know if panic is in order. I’m not sure I’d even want to explore what, if any, official Ottawa policies cover critical trouble spots, including if not especially the Balkans and Central Asia. It may have been only days ago that an insight was served up with what happened over the Middle East.

Perhaps it was a case of the Prime Minister misspeaking, nothing more, and nothing less. On the other hand, some of his remarks may have provided conclusive evidence in support of the proposition that any entity tends to define others in self-reflexive terms. Canadians see themselves as peacekeepers. According to PM Paul Martin, the Middle East dynamic, given all its problems and at present the part of the world most likely to contribute to any deterioration of the international system, is best seen through that peacekeeping prism.

The whole situation unfolded something like this: On 14 February 2005 popular former PM of Lebanon, Rafik Hariri died in a vicious bomb attack, setting off a wave of protest and outpouring of grief in his homeland. Martin, quick to condemn the violence, also mourned the loss. Yet only days later, Martin seemed either all too blissfully ignorant of the region’s politics, or entirely too willing to apply a very unique interpretation to conditions there. Lebanon’s neighbour Syria, long regarded by the international community and Hariri’s supporters as an occupier, emerged in the PM’s rhetoric a peacekeeper. On 17 February, Martin, exiting a Cabinet meeting, told members of the press “and it is clear that, if the Syrians are in Lebanon, it is because peace should be kept, and there was certainly a failure” [cited in “Critics Pounce on Martin’s Syria Stumble,” by Jeff Sallot, Globe and Mail, 18 February 2005. Also posted at]. He reportedly said nothing more, but had ample time to either withdraw the statement or clarify. Opposition parties then went to work, giving the PM at least 14 chances to set the record straight, and just maybe to retract the remarks. He did no such thing. In the days following, Liberals opted for damage control. Without actually apologizing, Martin attempted to step away from his observation. Foreign Affairs Minister Pierre Pettigrew, in the region only a week prior, urging Syria and Lebanon to support Israeli-Palestinian peace plans and claiming Canada’s limited capital could be crucial in resolving refugee problems, was left to explain Martin’s latest gaffe cost Ottawa no credibility. Bloc Leader Gilles Duceppe likely offered the most insight and clarity, noting it was incomprehensible that Martin couldn’t just apologize and move on.

Some are reminding us that our country has a poor record with the Middle East. And at such times, it may not be so bad that our ability to impact global events is, mercifully, limited. For instance, “in 2002, Jean Chrétien, Mr. Martin's predecessor, stumbled repeatedly during a trip to the Middle East on highly nuanced issues …Former Progressive Conservative prime minister Joe Clark had to backtrack on a 1979 campaign promise to move the Canadian embassy in Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, a step that Palestinians would have interpreted as de facto Canadian recognition of the Israeli occupation of the West Bank” [“Critics Pounce on Martin’s Syria Stumble,” by Jeff Sallot, Globe and Mail, 18 February 2005. Also posted at].

Chrétien and Clark made their blunders in simpler times, when tensions seemed subdued. While it is productive to point out what leaders in the past have done, it ought not divert from how serious problems in the region are today. Ignoring Israeli-Palestinian matters, one discovers Syria and Iran finding common cause. Turkey seems nervous over the Kurdish question. And then there’s Iraq where, so far, Ottawa officials maintain our policy remains the same: no Canadians will be sent to that country, though there just may be a commitment to train Iraqi forces in Jordan. With all this going on, US diplomats are opening back channels, engaging Iraqi insurgents in talks that might go nowhere. While it may be true that foreign policy, unlike social issues, isn’t about to get much traction and scrutiny in the forum of Canadian public opinion, that doesn’t mean this shouldn’t be seen as the worst possible moment to dust off the Joe Clark playbook.

Stan Markotich
Submit comments to 
Friday, February 18, 2005
  From the Republic of East Vancouver:

Stan Markotich
Submit comments to 
Tuesday, February 15, 2005
  Is the Trans-Atlantic Alliance in any serious trouble? Washington officials may have gone from commenting on “the Old Europe” to talking about “the Old Rumsfeld,” but what exactly is Europe’s position? I think it’s critical Canadians at least explore this issue. Ulrich Buechsenschuetz has one of the most insightful, important commentaries on his webpage; it’s titled Transatlantic Schroeder, posted under the 13 February 2005 date and, as always, is to be found at:

Stan Markotich
Submit comments to 
Friday, February 11, 2005
  It’s a nice piece by Michael Nystrom. The Chinese zodiac meets current history; it results in some very interesting reading:

Stan Markotich
Submit comments to 
Wednesday, February 02, 2005
  For those of us with an interest in the affairs of the wider world, I recommend at least one visit to:

Stan Markotich
Submit comments to

A discussion of geopolitics and Canada's role in the world. A series of essays to examine the components of Canadian foreign policy making. Psychological, sociological, historical, and cultural variables impacting Canada's perceptions of the world.

03/01/2004 - 04/01/2004 / 04/01/2004 - 05/01/2004 / 05/01/2004 - 06/01/2004 / 06/01/2004 - 07/01/2004 / 07/01/2004 - 08/01/2004 / 08/01/2004 - 09/01/2004 / 09/01/2004 - 10/01/2004 / 10/01/2004 - 11/01/2004 / 11/01/2004 - 12/01/2004 / 12/01/2004 - 01/01/2005 / 01/01/2005 - 02/01/2005 / 02/01/2005 - 03/01/2005 / 03/01/2005 - 04/01/2005 / 04/01/2005 - 05/01/2005 / 05/01/2005 - 06/01/2005 / 06/01/2005 - 07/01/2005 / 07/01/2005 - 08/01/2005 / 08/01/2005 - 09/01/2005 / 09/01/2005 - 10/01/2005 / 10/01/2005 - 11/01/2005 / 11/01/2005 - 12/01/2005 / 12/01/2005 - 01/01/2006 / 01/01/2006 - 02/01/2006 / 02/01/2006 - 03/01/2006 / 03/01/2006 - 04/01/2006 / 04/01/2006 - 05/01/2006 / 05/01/2006 - 06/01/2006 / 06/01/2006 - 07/01/2006 / 07/01/2006 - 08/01/2006 / 08/01/2006 - 09/01/2006 / 09/01/2006 - 10/01/2006 / 10/01/2006 - 11/01/2006 / 11/01/2006 - 12/01/2006 / 12/01/2006 - 01/01/2007 / 01/01/2007 - 02/01/2007 / 02/01/2007 - 03/01/2007 / 03/01/2007 - 04/01/2007 / 04/01/2007 - 05/01/2007 / 05/01/2007 - 06/01/2007 / 06/01/2007 - 07/01/2007 / 07/01/2007 - 08/01/2007 / 08/01/2007 - 09/01/2007 / 09/01/2007 - 10/01/2007 / 10/01/2007 - 11/01/2007 /

Listed on BlogsCanada