It seems hardly possible, but in this Canadian election campaign foreign policy plays no significant part. As the now familiar cliche expresses it, no one wants to talk about the elephant in the room. Radical Islamists have declared war on all secular democracies, including Canada, yet we believe there are more important matters on our agenda.
In current politics, our relations with the world beyond the United States barely exist -- and we see the United States not as democracy's champion but as a malign force whose oppressive trading practices must be fought by brave Canadian politicians.
At the moment, an alleged leak from the Canada's Finance department about tax policy (which, if it happened, could have been a clerical error or the crime of one greedy civil servant) plays a much larger part in our public consciousness than the world-wide Islamo-fascist threat to democracy.
Canadians have made indifference to this menace almost a virtue. We have apparently decided that it's an American struggle, promoted by oil-hungry jingoists, and we are wise to ignore it if we can. True, the Conservatives rightly point out that the Liberals are guilty of cutting Canadian forces to token size, but no one in this campaign seems concerned about the religion-fuelled madness that threatens much of the world, including (perhaps especially) countries with Muslim majorities.
In this regard we resemble liberal Americans, who have apparently concluded that George W. Bush is the main source of trouble in the world. They have now focused their hatred of him on what they consider illegal government eavesdropping.
They don't want to know that all wars present fresh problems and this one can't always be fought abroad. This is a war the jihadists deliver to your doorstep, in New York, Madrid, or London. Bush was right when he said recently that in defence against attack, "This is a different era." The soldiers of the jihad move with great speed and apprehending them requires exceptional agility.
The Americans have had remarkable success, up to now, with their new intelligence systems. In October, Bush mentioned that they had stopped 10 significant al-Qaeda plots, including two that involved hijacking civilian aircraft, an attack on Heathrow Airport in Britain, and a plan to blow up the Brooklyn Bridge.
Even so, the major problem in the White House now is not military but political: Defending its domestic surveillance program and the Patriot Act that gave Washington the power to fight this war.
Meanwhile, the war in Iraq remains essential to the international struggle. And on this subject most of us are woefully uninformed. We hear a great deal about successful suicide bombings and we receive occasional positive news about elections. Few among us understand that Iraq has become, in many ways, a success. (We may even see the day when Canadian politicians will stop bragging about keeping us out of it.)
Certainly the war has altered the tone of public discourse in the Middle East. More than any other event in the last half-century, it has raised the possibility of Arab democracy. As William Shawcross summarized it in the Spectator a few weeks ago, "American commitment and sacrifice are creating a vital opportunity for both Iraq and the Middle East to progress towards civil society." Shawcross argues that the Iraq war has helped pry open the closed societies of Libya, Lebanon and Syria, even Egypt and Saudi Arabia.
But much of the world continues to regard Iraq as a failure, at least partly because most people have come to believe that it started with a lie.
In America and elsewhere politicians and journalists have done their best to convict Bush of lying about the reasons for fighting Saddam Hussein. To an amazing extent, they have succeeded. So far as I can tell, the vast majority of Canadians, for example, are now convinced he lied.
This has made the U.S. war effort seem illegitimate and by extension has undermined all U.S. activity in the struggle against the jihadists. But the charge against Bush is the reverse of the truth. To lie is to state something one knows to be untrue. Bush, the record shows, had every reason to believe Iraq was developing weapons of mass destruction.
A brilliantly argued essay by Norman Podhoretz in the December issue of Commentary, "Who Is Lying About Iraq?," says: "What makes this charge so special is the amazing success it has enjoyed in getting itself established as a self-evident truth even though it has been refuted and discredited over and over again by evidence and argument alike. In this it resembles nothing so much as those animated cartoon characters who, after being flattened, blown up, or pushed over a cliff, always spring back to life with their bodies perfectly intact."
Before the war, all 15 U.S. intelligence-gathering agencies agreed that Iraq was expanding its ability to make chemical, biological and nuclear war. British, German, Russian, Chinese, Israeli and French intelligence agencies thought the same. Secretary of State Colin Powell's chief of staff, Lawrence Wilkerson, now a severe critic of the Bush policy, was also convinced. In that pre-war autumn of 2002, those holding the same view included Senator Hillary Clinton, who noted that intelligence showed Iraq rebuilding its stock of chemical and biological weapons. She also said Iraq has "given aid, comfort, and sanctuary to terrorists, including al-Qaeda members." And Senator Ted Kennedy declared: "We have known for many years that Saddam Hussein is seeking and developing weapons of mass destruction."
Why do so many now accept the claim that Bush lied? Because if we think he was fabricating his case, we can think the Iraq war was unnecessary and if that's true then maybe the whole threat against us, and the war on terrorism, have been inventions of crazed neo-conservatives. So we can relax.
Alexis de Tocqueville, whose Democracy in America remains after 170 years the best book on both of those subjects, insisted a democracy will always have great difficulty fighting a war -- because, he said, those living in democracies suffer from "an excessive love of tranquillity." In that sense Canada can be seen as the ultimate democracy. As our election campaign demonstrates, we do not want our sleep disturbed by reality.