It wasn't exactly unexpected, but scarcely had George Bush digested his Alberta beef medallion and vacated Canadian soil when Paul Martin announced Canada was going to offer its expertise in the January 30 Iraqi elections. The plan, which follows a $20 mil financial contribution, is in line with Canada's role of "offering its experience to new democracies," according to an Elections Canada press release. But don't be surprised if the usual celebration of the latest Canuck consensus-building mission is a bit subdued.
That's because many observers are in a quandary about this Pentagon-hosted runoff. On the one hand, anything with a ghost of a chance to restore order, return Iraq to its citizens, minimize the horrible violence and get the Yanks out of the desert is worth a chance. Add to this the fact that Canuck assistance is United Nations-endorsed, with all the multilateral cred that occasions.
On the other hand, the balloting exercise is to be accomplished under American occupation, in the middle of a vicious guerrilla war and under a boycott by leaders of the Sunni minority.
It's easy to see where some view the looming vote merely as a way for the U.S. to legitimize the regime of its ally Iyad Allawi, who in turn would then ask the U.S. to remain, not as a combat force, but as a "presence" until the country is stabilized - a feat which could take decades.
While the U.S. ups its troop numbers by 12,000, fears grow about a Sunni-Shiite civil war and a CIA report from Baghdad warns that the situation is deteriorating and may not rebound any time soon, one could reasonably ask if Canada should be lending its cachet. And further to that, what are the implications for doing fair, unbiased election monitoring if we are the ones setting up the structures?
Scott Taylor of military mag Esprit De Corp knows the dark side of Iraq better than most. Earlier this year, he was kidnapped and held by Ansar Al-Islam, an al Qaeda group in Kurdistan. He sees no sense in Elections Canada taking part in what he calls a "political facade."
"So far we've stayed out of the war, and if this is a sham to prop up the American cause, allowing them to get out of the country while creating further problems down the road, then we should call a spade a spade. We've got to be independent observers, and if we see the process is not going smoothly, we should be one of the loudest in the international community calling on the Americans to abort the process," he says.
He questions, too, the depth of the U.S. commitment to real democracy in Iraq if the population, for instance, should elect religious leaders who will then revoke secular reforms. "I can't imagine Donald Rumsfeld went to war to create yet another fundamentalist Islamic state."
Tony Clarke of the Polaris Institute also worries about whether Canada will be used as a prop for further U.S. adventures. Support for the American-sponsored voting procedure, he says, is inconsistent with the stand we have taken on the Iraq war all along.
"We're being dragged in as an adjunct to the 'coalition of the willing' to conduct a mopping-up operation," he says. This raises for him the larger question of what Canada's relationship ought to be with the bellicose U.S. empire at this moment in history. "The fact that we are the number-one foreign oil supplier to the U.S. now, having surpassed Saudi Arabia, raises serious questions as to our role in fuelling the military machine of the United States."
But, interestingly, he does not completely dismiss a role for Elections Canada. "There are very important humanitarian concerns to take into consideration here, and there is a crying need for something to be done."
Canada, he says, would have to act carefully to ensure the optics did not implicate it in U.S. misdeeds. "Somehow, a very clear distinction needs to be made. Canada (should say) we are there because of the people and not because we are concurring with the expansion of this operation."
According to Stephen Streeter of the centre for peace studies at McMaster University, Canada should not dignify an electoral process that has little chance of inspiring democracy. "Elections in this kind of atmosphere cannot possibly occur and be legitimate, because of the presence of a foreign army and just a huge amount of insecurity in the country. The U.S. sponsored elections in South Vietnam in the 1960s, and they were a joke," he says.
"It would be a different matter if the U.S. pulled its troops out and the UN came in to supervise elections. Then Canada could play a role, but right now I think it would be seen as a blessing for the U.S. invasion."
The two issues of the legitimacy of the war and our participation in the elections are "analytically distinct," according to Tom Axworthy of Queen's University's school of policy studies.
"It has nothing to do with a position on the war. That's over. That's the past," he tells me. "If there is a fair process to create a new governing authority, hopefully fairer and more inclusive than the tyranny of Saddam, there's no reason not to do it. Ignoring the Iraqi process or treating it like a pariah would be compounding the error by not doing what the international community can do to try and give those people a break for the first time in their life."
He views the recent election of Afghanistan's Hamid Karzai, whose power is deemed to be so limited that detractors scornfully label him "the mayor of Kabul," as a sign of hope. "Afghanistan has surprised Cassandras. Afghanis actually were able to bring together all factions to create a constitution and cobble together a presidential election that was pretty fair."
As to whether an Iraqi democracy could take root and flourish under the current circumstances, he admits, "One would have to be a real optimist." If you look at those cases where there has been a genuine transition to democracy, it doesn't happen the way it's occurring in Iraq - that is, going for a national party with national elections in a party system.
"In a logical sequence that should be your last point, not your beginning point. You have to start the way we did in Canada or they did in new England or Athens, with local democracy at the village level having genuine forms of participation that grow up, and gradually implement mechanisms that reflect that expression. Over time you can build to a national party system."
Whether any amount of Canadian expertise can turn this battleground into an arena for a fair election is an open question. And whether many would risk joining the effort is another. As Axworthy acknowledges: "They'd have to be pretty brave Canadians to go out in the field when Iraq is still in a quasi civil war. I don't know if anyone would want to volunteer for that."