The High Cost of Stephen Harper's Foreign Policy
By Haroon Siddiqui *
A look at what was lost in a dubious decade of Conservative foreign policy
As Stephen Harper, Thomas Mulcair and Justin Trudeau participate in a televised debate on foreign policy on September 28 evening, let’s see what some elder statesmen are saying.
“Canada has become a posturer, a poseur, a right-wing gasbag, shouting from the sidelines,” writes Bob Rae in his latest book, What Happened to Politics.
Harper has “shamed Canada,” says Jean Chretien. “I am sad to see that in fewer than 10 years, he has tarnished almost 60 years of Canada's reputation as a builder of peace and progress.”
A less partisan source, Joe Clark, bemoaned in his 2013 book, How We Lead: Canada in a Century of Change that Harper isolated Canada by badmouthing and boycotting multilateral forums, “hectoring and leaving.”
Foreign policy rarely decides elections. But it clearly is an issue this time. Many Canadians are upset that Harper has dramatically changed Canada’s view of and position in the world. And, worse, hijacked foreign policy to help the Conservative Party win votes in carefully targeted ethnic communities.
He did all this without seeking a mandate from the public or Parliament, and by muzzling our highly regarded diplomats.
One embarrassing outcome was Canada’s historic failure to win a seat on the UN Security Council in 2010.
Harper never saw a war he did not like — Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya and now the bombing campaign against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, wars that caused unprecedented death and destruction, displaced millions, collapsed functioning societies, created power vacuums that got filled by sectarianism, tribalism and terrorism. Harper hyped the terrorist threat but had little or no interest in its victims, the refugees who have come knocking on European and our doors.
Where we should have intervened militarily, Syria, he was among those who looked the other way, since Bashar Assad was not attacking Israel, Turkey and our other allies in that region.
From our Afghan mission, there remains the unfinished business of a full accounting of our part in torture. Harper kept Canadians in the dark about what did happen to the 375 Afghan detainees Canada handed over to the U.S. Forces and to Afghan authorities. We need a public inquiry, as called for last week by the Ottawa-based Rideau Institute.
Harper promoted warrior culture at home, as detailed in two books, Warrior Nation: Rebranding Canada in an Age of Anxiety, by Ian McKay and Jamie Swift, and What We Talk About When We Talk About War, by Noah Richler — discrediting peace-keeping; glorifying the War of 1812; pushing for the Victims of Communism monument in Ottawa and the Mother Canada statue in a national park in Cape Breton; placing soldiers at citizenship ceremonies, hockey games and the Grey Cup; christening 401 as “highway of heroes;” and arranging a flypast over Parliament Hill to celebrate victory in Libya, like George W. Bush’s “mission accomplished.”
Canada was one of only four countries not to vote for the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples; the only Western country that refused to repatriate its citizen from Guantanamo Bay, Omar Khadr; and the only one to pull out the Kyoto environmental accord to reduce emissions.
Canada was the most unapologetic supporter of the 2006 Israeli invasion of Lebanon and the Israeli attacks on Gaza, 2008-09, 2012 and 2014.
Canada was the only country to axe humanitarian funding for UN Relief and Work Agency that helps feed impoverished Palestinians, the majority in Gaza, as Sara Roy of Harvard University has outlined in detail.
Harper adopted Benjamin Netanyahu’s hostility to Iran, cutting off Ottawa’s relations with Tehran. Joe Clark: “Had we applied that attitude to South Africa, we’d have closed our embassy there while Nelson Mandela was still in prison and we could not have played the role we eventually did. Had Canada done that with China following the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre, we would not have had the ability to deal with Beijing subsequently.”
As Netanyahu, Harper was ambivalent about the democratic movements of the Arab Spring. He said the military coup in Egypt restored stability. He did as little as possible for Mohamed Fahmy, the Canadian journalist jailed in Egypt. He did nothing for Khaled Al-Qazzaz, a permanent resident of Canada married to a Canadian citizen, who remains in jail for the sin of having worked for Mohammed Morsi, the elected president toppled in the coup.
Harper got cosy with other Arab autocracies, and negotiated a $15-billion contract to supply light armoured vehicles to Saudi Arabia.
But Harper championed democracy in Ukraine, in tandem with wooing Canadian Ukrainian votes, just as he relentlessly wooed Jewish Canadians, Christian minorities from Egypt, Pakistan and Iraq, Ahmadi Canadians, Hindu Canadians and others. Nothing wrong with fishing for votes where you can find them but he has done so by twisting traditional Canadian foreign policy positions and by exploiting “old country” fault lines, rather than following the long-standing Canadian tradition of bringing old warring factions together.