WASHINGTON—Canada's outgoing ambassador to Washington revealed for the first time yesterday the shock and disbelief in the Bush administration when prime minister Jean Chrétien kept Canadian troops out of Iraq.
Michael Kergin said in an interview yesterday that administration insiders had all but ignored the diplomatic signals from Ottawa in the run-up to the invasion of Iraq.
Despite all the signs and statements from Ottawa about the need for United Nations backing, the decision somehow still caught official Washington off guard, he said.
"Sometimes in these things, the wish gives father to the thought," said Kergin, who retires at the end of this month.
Canada had flagged its intentions, Kergin said, but in the National Security Council, then the domain of national security adviser Condoleezza Rice, and in Donald Rumsfeld's Pentagon — "in spite of themselves, they still thought ... somehow we would find a way.
"It's like you can't quite believe it when you're told it and you really believe in the end it would happen. And in this case, it didn't."
Kergin said before a final message could be conveyed, Chrétien's statement to the House of Commons was broadcast live on CNN.
The U.S. State Department and National Security Councils both used the term "disappointment," as did U.S. Ambassador to Canada Paul Cellucci, Kergin said, but the tone of the reaction he received indicated anger and irritation, even if those words were never used.
"What I kept hearing from up on (Capitol) Hill, was `You were with us in World War II, you were always with us, how could you let us down now?'" Kergin recalled.
"I'd hear `You were with us in Korea, how could you not be with us,' ignoring entirely the sort of unilateral approach to Iraq. That just doesn't figure in their thinking, particularly."
Republicans upbraided him for ignoring the threat to the North America continent because Saddam Hussein was believed to have weapons of mass destruction — a claim now refuted.
Kergin also said he did not believe the Bush administration's ballistic missile defence program would lead to weapons in space, casting doubt on a key concern used by Prime Minister Paul Martin for his reluctance to sign on to the plan.
"My own sense ... people I talk to tell me they don't believe it is in the U.S. interest to go into the weaponization of space, because they are probably the most vulnerable of all," he said.
Kergin said he believed U.S. President George W. Bush now understood that missile defence was a "hot button" in Canada and his administration realized it was not wise to try to force a quick decision on Ottawa's participation.
He said there was less pressure coming from Bush for a Canadian pronouncement than there was six months ago, partly because the technology — as evidenced by a spectacular test failure last December — needed work and was likely setting the program back.
But Kergin said if Ottawa stayed out of the plan, it could find Washington viewed its role in continental defence much differently and could try to "reframe" NORAD, the Canada-U.S. North American defence pact — when it is renewed and possibly expanded to include maritime protection next year.
Opponents of the missile defence plan on both sides of the border say they believe the Bush plan is the first step to creating a space-based arms race.
Late last year, Jonathan Dean, a former U.S. disarmament negotiator, told a Commons committee the Pentagon was preparing to test a space-based satellite sensor this year which could be used to shoot incoming missiles.
Kergin, who was in the room when Martin and Bush discussed missile defence last November, said the president was trying to find out why there was such an "allergy" to his plan north of the border.
He did not "bully" Martin, as suggested by one U.S. newspaper, Kergin said, but instead Bush said, "I've got to understand the origin of this fear ... or phobia."
This, he said, was characteristic of the candour used by the two men behind closed doors.
"He didn't lean over the table or anything like that," Kergin said, adding that Bush believed in the value of the ballistic shield so much he was puzzled his enthusiasm was not being shared.
Kergin, a 62-year-old career diplomat made his remarks during a conversation reflecting on the end of a tenure marked by the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, the historic dip in relations following the Iraq decision, dealing with a U.S. administration deeply unpopular in Canada and a series of "bumpy" trade irritants.
After 38 years in public service, Kergin will retire and be replaced March 1 by former New Brunswick premier Frank McKenna.
Yesterday, Kergin spoke candidly for the first time about seeing his job publicly offered to former deputy prime minister John Manley after Martin came to power.
Kergin said he was given a heads-up that Martin was going to offer his job to Manley in December 2003, but "it surprised me a little bit that he would offer him the job ... and it surprised me he offered the job to someone who hadn't accepted it yet."
And, he added, he was surprised to see it all unfold on live television.
He was prepared to take another job in Ottawa, expecting his posting to end quickly. Instead, Martin did nothing for more than a year.
Kergin said he had a close relationship with Chrétien, for whom he had had been foreign affairs adviser, but he didn't really know Martin, so he expected the new Prime Minister would bring in his own person.
Kergin also contrasted his style with that of Cellucci, his counterpart in Ottawa, who leaves his post next month.
There is always a demand for Cellucci as a speaker in Canada, Kergin said, because he is the spokesperson for the U.S. president.
Cellucci's constant mantra about the need for Ottawa to boost military spending, for example, was a direct response to instructions from then-secretary of state Colin Powell to create a constituency for that point of view in Canada.
"He made it clear to Cellucci at the outset that one of Cellucci's messages was to develop a constituency which would increase defence spending in Canada which he, Colin Powell, felt had declined over the past decades," Kergin said.
"It is up to somebody else to argue whether that became counterproductive over time."
In this town, Kergin said, the job demands a different style.
"I could sit down here on the corner of Pennsylvania Ave. and yell all sorts of awful things, and I don't think I would excite people, or get much attention from the media here," he said.
Copyright Toronto Star Newspapers Limited