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The Iraq War: Why Canada Was Right Not To Participate

by Louis A. Delvoie

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In the first few months of 2003 there was an intense debate in Canada over whether or not the country should join the United States in launching military operations against Iraq. The Canadian government seemed at best hesitant, at worst vacillating, as it approached the moment when it felt compelled to announce a decision. When it eventually did so, the public presentation of that decision seemed tinged with legalistic self-righteousness and politically motivated triumphalism, to say nothing of a strong whiff of anti-Americanism (coming as it did on the heels of several unfortunate pronouncements from within the Liberal party and government.) What is more, the government’s decision-making process, as presented to Parliament and the public, seemed to hinge entirely on two somewhat arcane questions: Did Canada have the right (or indeed the obligation) to participate in military action against Iraq under the terms of existing UN Security Council resolutions, or was an additional Security Council resolution required to authorize such action? To these questions, of course, lawyers of various persuasions gave radically different answers, which in the end were of dubious use to policy makers and could/should not have been relied upon as a sound foundation for policy decisions.

Nevertheless, despite its less-than-stellar performance in explaining its decision, the Canadian government did make the right decision in refusing to join the United States in the war against Iraq. This becomes evident if one examines the issue in rather more fundamental terms than those used by the government in justifying its position. If one takes as a point of departure that decisions to deploy troops, to put forces in harm’s way and to go to war are among the weightiest that any government is called upon to make, the essential questions which must be answered are: Is war necessary? Is war likely to produce the desired results and will the positive results outweigh the negative results? In the case of the Iraq war, it seemed evident from the outset that the answer to these questions was: No. First, the war was unnecessary in that Iraq posed no imminent threat to the United States, the West or the Middle East. Secondly, the war was bound to be counter-productive in terms of achieving success in the war on terrorism and of maintaining stability in the Middle East, both of which represented major Western interests.

An Unnecessary War

Classical intelligence threat assessments focus on two aspects of any potential threat: capabilities and intentions. On neither score did Iraq represent an imminent or short-term threat to the West or to its neighbours.

Throughout the 1990s and into the early years of the new century, Iraq’s military capabilities had been systematically and dramatically degraded as a result of a combination of factors:

  • During the Gulf War of 1991, weeks of intense bombardments by the air forces of the United States, the United Kingdom, France and Canada had inflicted immense losses on the Iraqi armed forces in terms of both equipment and personnel. To these may be added the losses suffered during the short but sharp land campaign, which brought about the expulsion of Iraqi forces from Kuwait.

  • The collapse of the Soviet Union at the end of 1991 meant the end of its treaty of cooperation with Iraq, under the terms of which Iraq had obtained most of its major armaments. This resulted not only in Iraq being unable to secure new equipment from the Soviet Union, but also being unable to obtain spare parts for its existing holdings.

  • The UN arms embargo imposed on Iraq was by and large effective and denied Iraq the opportunity to replace most of the assets it had lost in the Gulf War, or to acquire new and more modern weapons systems.

  • The activities of the United Nations Special Commission (UNSCOM) and of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) resulted in the destruction of large quantities of Iraqi weapons of mass destruction and their delivery systems, and inhibited the development of new programmes in this area.

  • For more than ten years Iraqi military installations were subjected to almost weekly strikes by aircraft of the USAF and RAF patrolling the so-called ‘no fly zones’ in northern and southern Iraq.

The following tables may serve to illustrate in quantitative terms the extent to which the Iraqi armed forces were weakened during the 1990s:

Iraqi Armed Forces



Active Armed Forces



Armd/Mech Divs



Inf Divs






SSM Launchers






Table 11


Iraqi CW Capabilities Destroyed Under UNSCOM Supervision
  • 40,000 Munitions, 28,000 Filled and 12,000 Empty

  • 480,000 Litres of Chemical Agents

  • 1,800,000 Litres of Chemical Precursors

  • Eight Types of Delivery Systems, Including Missile Warheads

Table 22

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In short, the Iraqi military machine was but a shadow of its former self in terms of both equipment and personnel.

Turning from the realm of capabilities to that of intentions, it must be acknowledged that the Iraqi regime had a well documented history of engaging in military aggression, against Iran in 1980 and against Kuwait in 1990. But it must also be recognized that Saddam Hussein was essentially an opportunistic aggressor. Domestic, regional and international realities led him to believe that he could derive territorial and economic advantage through aggression in the circumstances prevailing in 1980 and 1990. In both instances he was proved wrong, of course, and there may be reason to believe that he may have learned from those experiences. More important, however, was the fact that the circumstances prevailing in 2003 offered no opportunity for successful military aggression by Iraq. In addition to Iraq’s greatly weakened military and economic posture, the fact was that the country was living in a virtual state of siege as a result of several factors: (1) the USA’s policy of containment and the deployment of US forces in the Persian Gulf region; (2) the UN’s sanctions and embargo regimes; (3) the presence and activities of UN and IAEA weapons inspectors; and (4) the constant patrolling of more than half of Iraq’s airspace by aircraft of the USAF and the RAF.

Under these circumstances, it was highly unlikely that Saddam Hussein could envisage any real opportunity for successful military aggression against any of Iraq’s neighbours, let alone the United States. The fact is that he had not displayed any aggressive intent against any neighbouring country in the 12 years from 1991 to 2003. What is more, most of Iraq’s neighbours displayed no particular fear of Iraqi aggression in 2003. Indeed, most of Iraq’s neighbours opposed the war. This was equally true of pro-Western countries such as Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Jordan, and of anti-Western countries such as Syria and Iran. The contrast with the situation that prevailed at the time of the Gulf crisis and war of 1990-91 could not have been more stark. At that time Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Syria had joined the American-led coalition and Iran had remained essentially neutral. In regional terms, the reality was that containment had worked and that the Iraqi regime was neither capable nor willing to envisage military aggression.

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In the realm of intentions, the major question which came to the fore in the run-up to the Iraq war was whether President Saddam Hussein might transfer weapons of mass destruction to Osama Bin Laden and his al-Qaeda network. It was a question deserving of the most serious attention given the known hostility of both Saddam Hussein and Bin Laden towards the United States. In examining this issue the first point to be made is that no evidence exists to suggest that Saddam Hussein had in fact already done this. The second point is that no solid evidence exists to suggest that he intended to do this. The question remains, might he have done it at some time in the future? The short answer is: Very highly improbable.

The Iraqi regime and al-Qaeda were natural enemies, not allies. The Baathist regime in Iraq was nationalist, socialist and secular; it was also brutally repressive and corrupt. It was precisely the sort of Arab regime that Osama Bin Laden and al-Qaeda are committed to overthrowing and replacing with regimes based on a universalist version of political Islam. Weapons in the hands of al-Qaeda might well one day have been used against the Iraqi regime. The argument that their mutual enmity might have been submerged in their enmity for the United States and might have led to cooperation on the basis of the old adage: “The enemy of my enemy is my friend” is not particularly convincing when it comes to weapons of mass destruction as opposed to some more limited forms of cooperation. An historical analogy may serve to underline the point. In 1944-45, the United States and the Soviet Union were allied in the struggle against Nazi Germany and the USSR benefited from enormous support from the US. There were however limits to that support and the US certainly did not share the secrets of the atom bomb with the USSR, let alone transfer nuclear weapons. The notion that today’s ally can be tomorrow’s enemy was presumably as evident to Saddam Hussein as it was to Harry Truman.

If there was one clear intention that Saddam Hussein demonstrated in the period 1991 to 2003, it was to ensure the survival of his regime. To have attacked the United States or any neighbouring country, or to have transferred weapons of mass destruction to al-Qaeda, would have run directly counter to that purpose. Thus, whether judged in terms of capabilities or intentions, the Iraq of 2003 represented no imminent or short-term threat to the United States, to the West or to the Middle East. Any longer-term issues related to the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq could have been dealt with by the UN inspection process, suitably supported by diplomatic and military pressure. The war, however, was unnecessary.

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A Counterproductive War

As was eminently predictable, the Iraq war has also proven to be counterproductive in several respects. Not the least of these is that it has operated at cross purposes with the war on terrorism. This becomes evident if one examines the Iraq war in terms of the realities, the images and the perceptions to which it gave rise. The fact is that the same reality was portrayed from radically different perspectives in the Western world and in the Muslim world. Western publics and their media focused primarily on: (1) the conduct of the military campaign; (2) the military victory achieved fairly rapidly and easily; and (3) the few hundred casualties suffered by the United States and its coalition partners. In the Arab world and the Muslim world at large, the focus was on: (1) the rapid defeat and humiliation of an Arab country and its army; (2) the military occupation of an Arab country by a foreign power; (3) the 10,000 to 15,000 Iraqis killed in the war, a substantial proportion of whom were non-combatants3; (4) the damage done to Iraq’s infrastructures and urban centres; and (5) the war-time and post-war hardships endured by the Iraqi people.

Not unexpectedly, this gave rise to new and higher levels of anti-Americanism throughout much of the Muslim world and in all likelihood generated support and recruits for extremist Islamist movements hostile to the West. (Even in far-off Indonesia, the world’s largest Muslim country, the number of respondents to a Pew Research Institute survey who held a positive view of the United States fell from 61 percent in 2002 to 15 percent in 2003.) This was hardly the outcome desired by the architects of the war on terrorism, since it has tended to increase rather than decrease the terrorist threat.

The Iraq war has also served to undermine the war on terrorism in another important way. In the aftermath of the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington in September 2001, the United States had garnered sympathy from around the world and had been successful in mobilizing a worldwide cooperative effort to fight international terrorism. Much of that goodwill was diluted by the United States’ decision to proceed with an attack on Iraq over the objections of so many countries and governments. The decision injected strains into the United States’ relations with key players in virtually every region: China, India and Indonesia in Asia, Russia, Germany and France in Europe; Brazil, Mexico and Canada in the Americas; Egypt, Turkey and Saudi Arabia in the Middle East. The reality is, of course, that whereas the United States can successfully prosecute a military campaign in Iraq relying solely on its own resources, in the war on terrorism it is heavily dependent on the active and whole-hearted cooperation of other countries. (In that war the activities of German prosecutors, Egyptian customs officials, Indian intelligence operatives and border guards throughout the Eurasian land mass are no less important than those of the CIA or the FBI). Only time and a lot of creative diplomacy on the part of the United States will help to restore the cohesion and unity of purpose that once characterized the coalition against international terrorism.4

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In the Middle East, the Iraq war has so far produced more instability than stability, and will likely continue to do so to the detriment of Western interests. The politicosecurity situation in Iraq itself is chaotic and is likely to remain so for some time to come. So far, the American forces and their allies have had to confront armed resistance from four quarters: remnants of the Baathist regime, assorted but largely unidentified Islamist jihadi groups, disgruntled members of the disbanded Iraqi army and ordinary Sunni Iraqis opposed to the military occupation. Up until now, the Shia community, which constitutes the majority population, has remained relatively quiescent, seemingly relieved by the ouster of Saddam Hussein and willing to await the outcome of events. There are, however, clear signs that that situation will not last much longer, as the Shias too tire of the military occupation and want to assert their claim to a leading role in any future Iraqi government.

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If and when elements of the Shia community decide to move in the direction of armed resistance, they will bring to the task a considerable degree of organization — popular religious organization built around individual mullahs, mosques and seminaries, and military organizations built around the so-called Badr brigades (formations of Iraqi exiles created in Iran). In brief, there would seem to be every prospect that the situation in Iraq will become more rather than less violent in the short to medium term.

Events in Iraq are bringing into ever-sharper focus the dilemma facing the American administration. On the one hand, there are the political, social, ethnic and religious realities of Iraq. On the other, there are the ideas and aspirations of the neo-conservative ideologues in the Bush Administration that Iraq can be converted into a fully functioning democratic state and serve as a model for the rest of the Middle East. In fact, making these ideas and aspirations a war aim of the US represented little more than the triumph of ideology over knowledge. Countless Middle East experts to be found in government departments, universities and think tanks across the United States knew — and know — full well that Iraq has been held together as a country solely by the presence of strong authoritarian governments at the centre and that the realities on the ground represent formidable, if not insurmountable, obstacles to the creation of a genuinely democratic Iraq. Those obstacles were neatly summed up in a book published by an American scholar in 2002:

The fragmented nature of Iraqi society argues against the emergence of a democratic Iraq, as does a political culture characterized by authoritarianism, distrust, and the preeminence of parochial loyalties. Iraq does not constitute an integrated political community, and there are few indicators that a viable civil culture capable of sustaining a democratic regime will emerge in the near future. Also problematic is the weakness of Iraq’s administrative and political institutions, all of which have been subverted to Hussein’s rule. Ironically, the security apparatus is the most effective of Iraqi institutions, wherein lies another problem for those anxious to see the emergence of a democratic Iraq.5

Under these circumstances, one can envisage three possible scenarios for the future of Iraq:

  1. The US decides to remain in military occupation of Iraq for many years in order to give itself the time needed to progressively develop the institutions, and the civil society required to underpin a genuinely democratic and durable government. In the process, the US will have to bear enormous political, economic and human costs, and can by no means be assured of ultimate success.

  2. The US withdraws from Iraq within a year or two having put into place the semblance of a democratic government, but one that does not enjoy any solid foundations and does not rest on any real sense of national cohesion. Such a government could not be expected to last very long and would in all likelihood be replaced by a more traditional authoritarian regime, whether headed by a mullah, a colonel or a party boss.

  3. The US decides to withdraw from Iraq in the short term without having been able to restore peace and order and without having managed to develop the minimum consensus necessary to put in place a more or less viable Iraqi government. In that case, the country may well disintegrate into at least three of its component parts — the Kurdish north, the Sunni Arab centre and the Shia Arab south. Should this happen, at least three of Iraq’s neighbours (Turkey, Iran and Saudi Arabia) can be counted upon to enter the fray to protect and promote their interests, with all of the consequences this would have for Middle Eastern peace and security.

None of these scenarios suggests that the United States can extricate itself from Iraq with its power, prestige and image intact, let alone enhanced. What is more they all contain within them the risk that the so-called ‘Vietnam syndrome’ might be re-ignited in American public opinion, to the detriment of US active engagement in world affairs. This should be of profound concern to the friends and allies of the United States who recognize that its robust diplomatic and military presence, backed up by its power projection capabilities, are essential to the preservation of peace and stability from the Balkans to the Sea of Japan.

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For all of these reasons, the Iraq war was a flawed enterprise, both unnecessary and counterproductive. The Canadian government was right to refuse to participate in it. Neither the terms of any UN resolutions nor any sense of solidarity with a close ally was sufficient to warrant the Canadian government renouncing its right and obligation not to risk the lives of its forces in such an enterprise. Indeed, in the interests of both Canada and the US, the most constructive thing the Canadian government could have done in the run-up to the outbreak of hostilities would have been to exercise quiet, behind-the-scenes, diplomatic pressure in support of those within the US Administration who had grave doubts about the merits of the war. It might not have changed anything, but it would have been an act of true loyalty to a friendship and a friend.


Louis A. Delvoie is Senior Fellow at the Centre for International Relations, Queen’s University.


  1. The data in this table are drawn from the International Institute for Strategic Studies, The Military Balance for 1988-89 and 1998-99.
  2. The data in this table are drawn from Anthony H. Cordesman, Transnational Threats from the Middle East: Crying Wolf or Crying Havoc (Carlisle, PA: The Strategic Studies Institute, 1999) p. 156.
  3. The American think tank, the Project on Defense Alternatives, has produced a detailed report in which it estimates that between 10,800 and 15,100 Iraqis were killed during the active phase of the war, and that of those 3,200 to 4,300 were non-combatants. See The Economist, November 1, 2003, p. 42.
  4. The impact that the Iraq war has had and may have on the cohesion and future of NATO is relevant but not central to the argument being advanced here. It nevertheless should be counted among the counterproductive effects of the war.
  5. Monte Palmer, The Politics of the Middle East (Itusca, Ill: F.E. Peacock Publishers, 2002) p. 333. The same themes are elaborated in Amin Saikal and Albrecht Schnabel (eds.) Democratization in the Middle East (Tokyo: United Nations University Press, 2003) pp. 176-182.
Members of 5th Mechanized Brigade

DND Photo KA2004-A037D by Master Corporal Brian Walsh

Members of 5th Canadian Mechanized Brigade arriving at Kabul International Airport to begin their six-month tour of duty with the International Security Assistance Force, 22 January 2004.