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Harper's strategy shift in the Middle East

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Photo: wikimedia commons

Observing the socio-political spheres of the Middle East these days, like newspapers and blogs, you would probably encounter with an expression in both Arabic and Farsi: "Canadians have become more Americanized than Americans!" Although perhaps such an expression is not new political rhetoric among many officials in the region, adapting this sentiment in the public sphere by independent journalists and activists should be taken seriously. To interpret the message, we must shed light on some of the decisions made by Stephen Harper in terms of his new policy toward the Middle East.

One of the fundamental principles in international relations is to recognize the very gap between people and the state, specifically in non-democratic regimes; recent gestures by Harper and his administration seem to neglect this principle. In other words, the bewilderment among activists in the region, from Egypt to Iran, is based on the Canadian government's ignorance of such a gap when they realize that Harper does not consider the multi-dimensional aspects of current issues yet merely reduces all of them to a black and white situation.

The political and social atmospheres in both Egypt and Iran have changed during the past few months, but there seems no sign of recognition in Canada's official discourse. Iran's new president, Hassan Rouhani, the elimination of Muslim Brotherhood form the power in Egypt and worsening bloodshed in Syria have not been genuinely discussed nor resulted in any changes in the Harper's administration stance toward the region.

The Middle East has been home to incessant turmoil and instability for decades, and Canada had always demonstrated an independent policy, contrary to other world powers. It recognized the complexity and significance of any and each circumstance within the various countries. This open and flexible position meant Canada was regarded as a fair and decent friend that acted as a peacemaker. In contrast to the United States, Canada's role in the region was considered not only in favor of civil societies' concerns, but also more practical in terms of cultivating democracy and promoting human rights. The Conservative government's stance and policy declarations on many issues in the region have caused this favourable view of Canada to shift.

While the U.S. is attempting to replace its previous one-sided articulation of issues in the Middle East to a more realistic and multi-dimensional view -- for example Iran's nuclear program, the Syrian civil war, Egypt's struggle for democracy and the stalemated Israeli-Palestinian peace process -- it seems that Canada has derailed its successful strategy into an oversimplified view of the situation. The U.S. had adopted Canada's former strategy, and Canada is narrowing its views with a more black and white picture; the roles have seemingly been reversed.

The U.S. announcement that Robert Malley, a Middle East peacemaker and top advisor of President Bill Clinton in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, would be coming back to the White House to manage the fraying ties between the U.S. and its allies in the Persian Gulf and convince the Israeli government to reconsider American new stance is telling evidence of this change in America's role in the region. While Malley was accused of showing a persistent anti-Israel and pro-Palestinian bias in the 1990s, it is very clear that Obama will never stop backing Israel.

Harper, however, has shifted his government's Middle East policy decidedly in favor of hardliners in the Israeli government. He not only demonstrated this shift his visit to Israel earlier this year, but by ignoring the real tension between Egyptian and Iranian activists with their governments some experts fear that Canada's extreme articulation will eventually assist fundamentalists in the region. By ignoring differences between previous governments and current ones, taking a passive role in the Syrian crises, offering unwavering full support of Israel's policy towards Palestine and considering any type of criticism as a new brand of anti-Semitism, or as Harper puts it "sophisticated language that uses anti-Israel talk to mask racism," this government has succeeded in causing a fundamental shift in how Canadians are viewed in the regions -- it seems that we really are "more Americanized than Americans."

Although there is still much that Canada can do to retain and reinforce its credibility, it seems that the momentum will pass soon. While the U.S. tries to show a more moderate and tolerable face, Canada appears reluctant to sustain its highly respected and neutral position. While Canada's position 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 Canadian culture and for how Canada is viewed.

The momentum and change that is occurring right now in the region is precisely the time that a well-respected and viewed nation like Canada can have an influence in the process and outcomes. Our government should consider a more effective strategy that encourages conversations between all sides of conflicts on the basis of its former distinguished policy in the Middle East -- instead of hindering that dialogue with a rhetoric that encourages division and propagates fear. 

Arash Falasiri is a PhD student of Social and Political Thought at York University.

Photo: wikimedia commons

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