It was on this day a year ago, Feb. 5, 2003, that Colin Powell came before the United Nations to catalogue Saddam Hussein's alleged weapons of horror.
"My colleagues," said the U.S. Secretary of State, "every statement I make today is backed by sources, solid sources. These are not assertions. What we are giving you are facts and conclusions based on solid intelligence."
Shortly thereafter, when Mr. Hussein failed to turn over the weapons he did not have, the United States invaded. Since the beginning of the war, more than 500 Americans have perished. As for the overwhelmingly outmatched Iraqis, an estimated 10,000 have been killed. For those who believe the invasion was unjust, "murdered" is the preferred, if excessive, word.
Mr. Powell came close to saying the aggression was unjust this week. If the administration had known there were no such weapons stocks, he told the Washington Post, there might not have been an invasion. The day his words were published, with consternation gripping the White House, Mr. Powell was trotted out to deny them, and say the attack was the correct call.
There were many who didn't believe the U.S. take on Iraqi weapons. The Canadian government wanted more time for inspections, more proof. United Nations chief inspector Hans Blix wanted more time. He was ridiculed. Some journalists, the most notable being Eric Margolis of the Sun chain, said from the first day that the U.S. line was a crock. In a print medium that is now, in contrast to Canadians themselves, largely conservative, he stood out.
In the long run, the war may well have beneficial consequences. Removing any brutal dictator usually does. But that does not take away from the contemptible manner in which the carnage was undertaken. That there were no weapons stocks is validation that the West's policy of containment against Saddam was working well.
Mr. Bush's credibility has suffered its biggest hit to date with the publication of the weapons report by David Kay, a former UN weapons inspector and CIA adviser who said no weapons now exist in Iraq. Ottawa's foreign-policy makers, while largely vindicated, aren't boasting about it. But the hope here is that Mr. Kay's repudiation will diminish some of the sense of moral righteousness coming from the Bush White House.
Though it wasn't publicized at the time, Prime Minister Paul Martin got a sense of that sanctimony when he met with Mr. Bush in early January in Mexico. Mr. Bush let the Prime Minister know that he believed himself to be on the side of God and tending to God's mission.
The Canadian side, while aware of the President's penchant for religiosity, had been expecting to talk more about softwood lumber than the Ten Commandments. The Canadians didn't expect the morality play. Nor did they expect that, almost in the same breath, Mr. Bush would be filling the air with the f-word and other saucy expletives of the type that would surely leave the Lord perturbed. Nor did they anticipate a pointed attack on French President "Jack Cheerack," as Mr. Bush called him, for his views on the Middle East.
Mr. Martin was somewhat taken aback by what he heard. After the meeting, he was barely out the door before he was asking someone in his entourage what was to be made of all the God stuff. In meetings of presidents and prime ministers, religion has rarely been at the forefront. Business is conducted on the basis of knowledge and logic. With the Bush White House, the visitors must bear in mind that there is a third force.
It was a Martin question on the President's world view that sent Mr. Bush off on his sermon. It wasn't, Canadians officials say, a gratuitous rant. Whether or not he was presenting himself as God's agent depends on whose version of the meeting one listens to.
But neither the Prime Minister nor Foreign Affairs Minister Bill Graham let this aspect of the proceedings divert them from their purpose of establishing a warm rapport with the President, which they achieved. There was no attempt at challenging the views of Mr. Bush, who had a religious conversion at age 39, after a weekend of talks with evangelist Billy Graham. Within a year, he gave up drinking and joined a men's Bible-study group.
With U.S. voters, he scores well for his religious views. It gives him moral clarity. In Canada, it hasn't helped his image. As a Maclean's poll reveals this week, this President is one of the most disliked in history. His sense of sanctimony combined with the right-wing warrior mentality is a potent non-seller. So much so that Paul Martin need not worry about rushing back to see him any time soon. If the Prime Minister wants to hear morality plays, there's a church just up the street from his Sussex Drive home.
© 2004 Bell Globemedia Publishing Inc.