Harper has his Reagan moment

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There's been much recent criticism of the Harper government's foreign policy. This week in The Globe and Mail, Jeffrey Simpson rained on its shifting China stance and former official Gar Pardy blamed it for failing citizens in trouble abroad. Yesterday came news of another Canadian left to languish in Kenya. I don't mean to pile on but rather to explore the cause.

It seems to me this kind of erratic, distasteful foreign policy is what you get when you have an ideological government in a minority situation. These people got into politics largely due to a right-wing belief system but lack the majority to implement it. Stephen Harper, who early in his career railed against special treatment for Quebec, was forced to recognize Quebeckers as a "nation." He is a devout free marketer who had to run up deficits and launch stimulus programs. It can't have been easy, turning into a Keynesian.

So foreign policy becomes an outlet where you try to recoup a bit of ideological integrity. It is where Stephen can try to be Stephen. Early on, he attempted it with China, saying he wouldn't "sell out important Canadian values" for the "almighty dollar." That hard line dissolved due to the economic clout China now has. But the quest continued.

Along comes an anti-democratic military coup in Honduras last June. Every country in the hemisphere, including the United States, denounces it, calls for the return of elected president Manuel Zelaya and pulls some aid funding -- except us. We are laggard and mealy-mouthed and maintain military aid. It's true Canada has sweatshop and mining operations there, which didn't much like Mr. Zelaya's 60-per-cent hike to the minimum wage, but that applied to U.S. interests too, and doesn't account for our uniquely regressive behaviour.

Honduras, however, gets to be Stephen Harper's Reagan moment, his own private Nicaragua. Ronald Reagan faced down a Marxist revolution there in the 1980s. He funded the murderous Contras. He betrayed the U.S. Constitution to do it, even secretly dealing with Iran. And he ran it from next door in Honduras! Stephen Harper was born too late; he should have been PM during the Cold War, fighting commies. But now he can relive the dream. "I don't take any of these rogue states lightly," he has said, like Reagan's ghost.

You can view the surprising Harper stress on the North, and his many trips there, similarly: as a foreign-policy issue. He certainly doesn't include the local Inuit. They had to sue the government to have their treaty rights considered part of our Arctic sovereignty claims. So why the Arctic obsession?

It's more Cold War nostalgia. During those decades of nuclear peril, in what venue did Canada directly face off against the Red Menace? The North. The DEW line. Now, with the ice caps melting, what's going on? The Russians are coming -- again. What did Stephen do there this week? He took the controls of a Sea King copter, then boarded a sub divedivedive. Just like Ice Station Zebra! Rock Hudson confronts the Russkies anew, at the Pole.

Compare his pleased expression as he stood on that sub to another photo from the same trip, in which he's trying seal meat, alongside eight cabinet ministers. They all smile cheerily. Only Stephen looks dubious, as if this is what the damn job requires, especially when you need to overcome minority status. Give him this: He has a true-to-himself quality, even when he's faking it.

Note: I am grateful to Yves Engler for his harassment and insight, especially re Honduras. Yves became a foreign-policy expert by working as a night doorman in Montreal. It gave him time to read hundreds of books and write one of his own. He's in the mould of I. F. Stone, who wasted no time with politicians, who all have an agenda, but went instead straight to the public record.

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