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Bush Could Learn from War of 1812

(Note: An edited version of this article was published in the Montreal Gazette, Thursday, November 28, 2002

The observation by Françoise Ducros, Prime Minister Jean Chretien's Communications Director that President Bush was a "moron" for wishing to go war with Iraq was uncalled for, but the American administration's reassurances that the war would be swift and the Iraqi people would welcome the American troops is reminiscent of the declarations made before another American war - the War of 1812.

In 1812, President Madison said the war was necessary to safeguard American ships from attacks by the British Navy. The real reason, however, was not maritime, but the acquisition of territory, particularly, of what is now Ontario and Quebec. As John Randolph of Virginia noted: "Agrarian cupidity not maritime rights urges this war. Ever since the report of the Committee on Foreign Relations came into the House, we have heard but one eternal monotonous tone - Canada! Canada! Canada! Not a syllable about Halifax, which unquestionably should be our great object in a war for maritime security."

Nevertheless, on June 18, 1812, after a 19 to 13 vote in the Senate, the U.S. declared war on Great Britain and Canada. The Administration was confident of the outcome. William Eustis, the U.S. Secretary for War declared: "We can take the Canadas without soldiers, we have only to send officers into the province and the people . . . will rally round our standard." Henry Clay, Speaker of the House of Representatives, declared: I trust I shall not be deemed presumptuous when I state that I verily believe that the militia of Kentucky are alone competent to place Montreal and Upper Canada at your feet." To Jefferson, it was "a mere matter of marching."

In 1812, America had France as a principal ally, in its war, just as it has Great Britain today. The plan was for the United States to take possession of Canada, while British military forces would be tied down by the war with Napoleon. The Emperor, who commanded all western continental Europe (except Spain, the famous "running sore"), acted in concert with the U.S. and six days after the American declaration of war on Britain, Napoleon's Grand Army crossed the Niemen, on the road to Moscow.

In Canada, the war was fought on five fronts, (four in Ontario and one in Quebec) and in each case, the Canadians rose up and repelled the American armies. The war ended on Christmas Eve, 1814, when The Treaty of Ghent was signed. There was no clear-cut winner - America was successful in naval engagements and in the Battle of New Orleans, which took place in 1815 after peace had been declared. The British, on the other hand, managed to take Washington and burn the White House on August 24, 1814. Both the United States and Canada emerged from the war with an increased sense of national identity.

George Bush's war on Iraq is intended to eliminate weapons of mass destruction, but many believe it is intended to secure a friendly and stable supply of oil in the Middle East. It is also seen as a diversion from the Afghanistan and Al Qaeda campaigns, which themselves have turned into a running sore. President Bush is no moron. At times, like President Reagan, he seems uninformed, but like Reagan he has a remarkable simplicity of purpose and will probably have the war he wants. He is likely to be much more successful in the short run, than was President Madison in 1812, but establishing a friendly democratic regime in Iraq will be very difficult, while the war itself is likely to inflame the Moslem world and incite extremists and terrorists, contrary to the original stated purpose when Afghanistan was attacked. Nor is the war likely to win support from Arab moderates, which is necessary for lasting peace. Reagan won his cold war without an invasion. Bush has already had one invasion, whose outcome is still in doubt. Will a second have the desired effect?

William Tetley
Professor, McGill Law Faculty
And former Minister in the Government of Quebec 1970-1976