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Fowler: Springtime for Harper

June 29, 2011

Prime Minister Stephen Harper speaking on the importance of a strong Canadian Armed Forces.

Since the morning of September 11th, 2001 there has perhaps been no act more consequential in world affairs than the self-immolation of a Tunisian businessman last January. This drastic act of rebellion against a dictatorship deaf to the poor conditions of the people it ruled set off a chain of protests that has swept the Middle East, toppling autocrats, igniting civil wars, and putting world leaders in uncomfortable positions. Initially, as Zine El Abidine Ben Ali was forced out of office and the focus turned to Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak, caution prevailed in the statements from President Barack Obama and his European counterparts. However, as it became apparent that the protests would not curtail and only legitimate political change would satisfy protestors’ demands, leaders became far more vocal in their support for the rebellions. A notable exception to this chorus of converted supporters was Canada’s Stephen Harper. He, seemingly alone, continued the air of caution that first struck leaders’ words when dealing with the Arab Spring, warning of the risk that these countries might slip into the trap of Islamic extremism, increasing the threat to Israel and Western interests in the region. However, as NATO began it’s bombing mission in Libya to prevent Col. Muammar Gaddafi from slaughtering his own protestors, Mr. Harper declared his full support and has since extended the mission for three months. Why do the Libyan rebels deserve Canada’s support while Egyptian and Tunisian protestors do not? Only Stephen Harper knows the answer to that, but his prior statements and policy positions give an idea of why he has taken these seemingly divergent positions.

At the G8 summit in Deauville, France a few weeks ago world leaders agreed to broad new initiatives to aid those countries that have already toppled their dictators and provide support for others striving to do the same. It was Mr. Harper who declined to invest new money in the countries, instead citing Canada’s contributions to the World Bank and International Monetary Fund, which in turn would provide loans for Egypt and Tunisia, as sufficient support. To many this seemed to signal Mr. Harper’s unwillingness to embrace the Arab protestors, a stance at odds with the position Mr. Obama, President Sarkozy and Prime Minister Cameron have arrived at. However, Harper’s continued caution when dealing with these revolutions has not extended to the civil war in Libya. There the Prime Minister has committed significant resources to NATO efforts protecting civilians and, now, pursuing regime change against Col. Gaddafi. Why the difference in support? Canada, as a member of NATO, was expected to participate in the alliance’s efforts and a strengthened military has always been a priority of Mr. Harper. But if he’s afraid of supporting Tunisians with debt swaps it seems strange how dedicated he appears to be to the Libya mission. For clarity on this it is perhaps best to look back at the last time Mr. Harper advocated Canada’s participation in a military mission. In 2003 he and Stockwell Day wrote an op-ed in the Washington Post criticizing Prime Minister Jean Chretien for declining to send troops to Iraq. Some of his harshest criticisms came over Canada not standing, “…beside its key British and American allies in their time of need,” but he also noted how

“Modern Canada was forged in large part by war — not because it was easy but because it was right. In the great wars of the last century — against authoritarianism, fascism, and communism — Canada did not merely stand with the Americans, more often than not we led the way. We did so for freedom, for democracy, for civilization itself.”

When looking at Mr. Harper’s core philosophical argument for Canada joining the invasion of Iraq, it becomes a bit clearer why he is committed to the Libyan war. To him, it’s Canada’s and the entire West’s duty to support the rebels engaging in full-scale war against a murderous tyrant. The recent visit by Foreign Minister John Baird to Benghazi signaled that Mr. Harper sees the Libyan rebels as legitimate freedom fighters dying for democracy. Reports of al-Qaeda influence in the rebel ranks has not served to dampen enthusiasm for the mission, possibly because the chance of an Islamist Libya does not pose nearly the threat to Israel that a theocratic Egypt does, but also since Mr. Harper has elevated Col. Gaddafi, if not to the ranks of Hitler and Stalin, then at least to third world dictators like Slobodan Milosevic and Saddam Hussein. Mr. Baird himself stated, “What we can say for sure is that they (the rebels) would be better than Gaddafi.” The protests in other Arab countries do not require the same amount of support for a variety of reasons: their dictators were far less ruthless, more accommodating to Israeli security, and were able to uphold order in an area of the world that remains quite chaotic. The human rights abuses of Ben Ali and Mubarak are whitewashed in Mr. Harper’s mind by the stability they provided in their countries, an oddly contradictory stance when one takes into account Mr. Harper’s cold shouldering of China during his first years in power due to their human rights abuses. The prime minister views respect for human rights as necessary for a country striving to be a world power; for less developed nations, the most important task is to keep law and order. Interestingly, Mr. Harper’s differing views on the countries partaking in the Arab Spring can be related to his domestic policy pursuits: his tough on crime agenda and strengthening of the military go hand in hand with his support for Mr. Mubarak and the Libyan rebels. However, these positions are in keeping with a trend Mr. Harper has of following his own principles regardless of what other leaders, or even the country, thinks. Supporters would commend him for showing political courage; critics would compare this mindset to that of George W. Bush, whose enthusiasm for unilateral liberal interventionism has alienated the world and increasingly Americans themselves. In any case, the protests have not ended and are continuing to spread to every oppressed area of the Middle East. Mr. Harper will have plenty of opportunities to show his country where he stands.

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One Comment leave one →
  1. June 30, 2011 6:09 pm

    well done.

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