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Harper’s discordant notes

Unlike the US, Canada has always had a positive reputation in the strife-tone Middle East as an impartial broker and peacemaker. Until now.

Arash Falasiri
12 March 2014
Netanyahus listening to Stephen Harper

They liked what they heard: Benjamin and Sara Netanyahu welcoming Harper to Jerusalem. Demotix / Nir Alon. All rights reserved.

In the Middle Eastern public sphere, in newspapers and blogs, in Arabic and Farsi, an expression has acquired currency: “Canadians have become more Americanised than Americans!”

It is a principle in international relations to recognise in non-democratic regimes the gap between the public and the state, and the tensions and shifts this may portend. But recent gestures by Canada’s prime minister, Stephen Harper, and his Conservative government seem to neglect this principle. The bewilderment among activists in the region, from Egypt to Iran, is based on Ottawa’s reduction of complex situations to the black and white.

The political and social atmospheres in both those countries have changed during the past few months, yet without recognition in Canada’s official discourse. The elevation of Hassan Rouhani to the Iranian presidency and the elimination of the Muslim Brotherhood from power in Egypt, not to mention the worsening bloodshed in Syria, have not been genuinely discussed; nor have they brought any changes in the administration’s stance toward the region. 

Contrary to other world powers, Canada had always demonstrated an independent policy on the Middle East, home to turmoil and instability for decades. It used to recognise the significance of concrete circumstances within particular countries. This open and flexible position meant Canada was regarded as an impartial friend and peacemaker.

In contrast to the United States, Canada’s role in the region was considered not only supportive of the concerns of civil society but also more practical in cultivating democracy and promoting human rights. The Harper government’s declarations on many issues in the region have however caused this favourable view to shift.

Oversimplified

The US is now attempting to replace its previous one-sided articulation of issues in the Middle East by a more realistic and multi-dimensional view – on Iran’s nuclear programme, the Syrian civil war, Egypt’s struggle for democracy and the stalemated Israeli-Palestinian peace process. Yet in a role reversal, it seems Canada has derailed its successful approach in favour of an oversimplified perspective.  

Telling evidence of the change in Washington has been the announcement that Robert Malley, a top adviser on the Israeli-Palestinian peace process to the former president Bill Clinton, would be coming back to the White House to manage the fraying ties between the US and its allies in the Persian Gulf and convince the Israeli government to reappraise a nuanced American stance. The current president, Barack Obama, is hardly going to stop backing Israel but Malley was persistently accused in some quarters in the 1990s of a pro-Palestinian bias. 

Harper, meanwhile, has shifted his government’s Middle East policy decidedly in favor of hardliners in Jerusalem, as he demonstrated on his visit to Israel earlier this year. By ignoring the real tensions between Egyptian and Iranian activists and their governments, some experts fear, his administration could unwittingly end up assisting fundamentalists in the region. All in all, showing a tin ear to differences between previous governments and incumbents, taking a passive role in the Syrian crisis and considering any criticism of Israel a version of anti-Semitism are all adding up to a new image of Canada as outdoing its southern neighbour in perversity.

Serious consequences

Although there is still much that Canada can do to retain and indeed reinforce its credibility, the moment could pass soon. While the US tries to show a more moderate and tolerant face, Canada appears reluctant to sustain its highly respected and neutral position. And while its status as a global peacekeeper may not be in jeopardy immediately, in the long-term Harper’s stance in the region will bear serious consequences for how Canada is viewed.

The momentum of change in the Middle East makes this precisely the time for a respected state like Canada to wield a positive influence. Ottawa should consider a more effective strategy, encouraging conversations among all sides of conflicts. 

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