Harper's reckless foreign policy in the Middle East

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It is hard to credit the latest statements and actions by Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird. On both Iran and Israel, Baird seems to almost deliberately seek to humiliate both himself and the country he is supposed to represent on the international stage. Taking an ultra-orthodox rabbi (whose organization opposes any Palestinian state) with him on an official visit to Israel is not just bizarre but dangerous. And suggesting, essentially, that Iran has a first-strike policy against Israel (with non-existent nuclear weapons) while comparing its leader to Hitler, puts Baird firmly in the company of drunks in a barroom exchange of tough talk.

For Stephen Harper to let this crude and ignorant political storm trooper loose as our principal face to the world may only be understandable if we assume that everything Harper does is for a domestic audience. He simply doesn't care what the world thinks. There has always been a kind of visceral disdain for things foreign amongst the population which makes up Harper's core vote. Perhaps wilful ignorance and a penchant for barroom tough talk is exactly what qualifies Baird for his job.

It is hardly new that Harper's ministers and Harper himself operate with little reference to the professional civil service that most governments rely on for policy advice. He doesn't trust bureaucrats or their traditional role of guiding government policy. For Harper, the civil service is at best an impediment to his agenda, at worst a political enemy -- the equivalent of another political party. He has now effectively gagged every public employee who might otherwise brief the media -- and citizens -- on even the mundane day-to-day operations of government.

By now, the Harper government's Middle-East policy is well known -- continuous posturing about Arab dictatorships and terrorists and a sycophantic pandering to the Israeli government of Benjamin Netanyahu. Harper treats all Palestinians, even elected representatives, as if they were terrorists. While Canada's official position on a two-state solution (based on 1967 borders) hasn't changed, Harper refuses to utter the phrase. While he pays lip service to the need for diplomacy regarding Iran, his predominant posture is war-mongering at it worst. If he had a sabre, he would be rattling it.

But even in this extremist context, Baird's recent behaviour is outrageous and a national embarrassment. It is what happens when you give an anti-intellectual thug free reign -- his natural tendencies eventually become full-blown. His recent trip to Israel even embarrassed his hosts who, according to the Globe's Patrick Martin, were extremely uncomfortable with Baird's companion, Rabbi Chaim Mendelsohn, the head of the Chabad organization in Canada -- an ultra-orthodox Hasidic movement noted for its aggressive proselytizing. The movement believes its former leader, Menachem Schneerson, was the Messiah.

What nuanced public policy goal was intended by bringing this controversial rabbi on an official trip is impossible to decipher. Indeed, it seems a complete contradiction of any public policy objective, certainly any that might have been put together by the professionals at Foreign Affairs. Baird was so over the top in his praise of Israel -- constantly repeating that Canada was Israel's best friend -- that Israeli Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz mused: "I think Canada's an even better friend of Israel than we are."

Orthodox Jews and their parties have always played an important role in Israeli governments, being part of any governing coalition. But in recent years they have become more aggressive in Israel society, especially in their efforts to restrict the rights of Israeli Arabs. Secular and Liberal Jews have become so uncomfortable with this trend that many have left the country.

Just what message Baird thought he was delivering to his hosts and to Israelis in general is anyone's guess. But it is in the area of the peace process, such as it is, that Baird's choice of companion is most troublesome. Chabad is a firm believer in Greater Israel -- which includes all of the Palestinian land seized in the 1967 war. According to Chabad, Greater Israel "...is the land promised to us by G-d -- not the UN. And we may not give away an iota to our enemies, for it is ours by Divine Will." This stance effectively eliminates any possibility of land for peace and certainly any negotiations based on 1967 borders -- the position of virtually every key player in the "peace" process, including the United States.

It is also the basis for Canada's official policy. Indeed, last June it was Baird who made this clear, telling the media after the G8 meetings: "We support, obviously, that the solution has to be based on the '67 border, with mutually agreed upon swaps, as President Obama said." If it's so obvious, then why would Baird bring with him as part of his official delegation the head of Chabad in Canada, an organization whose beliefs make such a solution impossible?

It begs the question: who is actually determining Canada's policy towards Israel and who, or what organization, persuaded Baird that taking Rabbi Chaim Mendelsohn along on an official visit was a good idea?

Baird's statements on Iran are almost as bizarre and troublesome. It is as if Baird simply shoots from the lip without any consultation with his own officials -- but with the apparent blessing of his boss in the PMO. Responding to hyperbolic rhetoric from Iran's Ayatollah Ali Khamenei about excising the Israeli "cancer" from the region, Baird casually compared the religious leader to Adolph Hitler: "Hitler wrote Mein Kampf more than a decade before he became Chancellor of Germany..." But he was just warming up: "...it's not just an Israeli question. The fear in the Arab world, in the entire region, the Gulf, and the entire Middle East is palpable on this issue. And it's increasingly a significant security threat for the West: for Canada, the United States and our allies in Europe."

This is little more than adolescent running off at the mouth -- again, no strategic thought involved, just a reckless analogy and sweeping, unsubstantiated statements about the most politically complex region in the world. In the same CTV Question Period interview, Baird stated that "of course" diplomatic efforts must be maximized and given every chance of succeeding. I wonder how Baird would explain his comparison with Hitler to Iran's leadership were he to play a role in such diplomacy.

At the same time as he was pointlessly demonizing Iran's leadership, Baird was repeating one of his most preposterous claims -- that Iran would actually use nuclear weapons if they had them. On the latter point, Baird and Harper ignore the fact that U.S. intelligence agencies and the Pentagon -- despite renewed rhetoric about Iran's nuclear program -- are still not even convinced that Iran is trying to build a bomb. Iran's promise of a major nuclear announcement will almost certainly relate to nuclear power, not weapons. Baird has stated: "We believe Iran constitutes the greatest threat to peace and security in the world." This is a country that has never invaded any of its neighbours and compared to the Israeli penchant for intervening wherever it pleases, is isolationist. Yet for Baird it is more dangerous than Pakistan and North Korea, which actually have nuclear weapons and are extremely unstable.

Baird's conviction that Iran would use nuclear weapons matches Stephen Harper's rhetoric: "In my judgment, these are people who have a particular, you know, a fanatically religious worldview, and their statements imply to me no hesitation about using nuclear weapons if they see them achieving their religious or political purposes." Such a thoughtless analysis is irresponsible -- the suggestion that Iran would use a nuclear weapon against Israel (which has 200 of them) for "religious or political purposes" is an opinion unsupported by any other Western leader.

Were this rhetoric emanating from a youth parliament or an all-night bar we could treat it with bemusement. But these casual and ill-informed "diplomatic" interventions are focused on one of the most volatile regions in the world where every word from Western leaders is pored over, parsed and parsed again in a search for new trends or positions. If Iranians pay any attention to them (let's hope they don't) the effect will be to generate even more public support to the Ayatollahs and political hard-liners -- the most likely sources of support for the development of nuclear weapons. All of the Harper government's statements imply support for military intervention in Iran. And that, according to literally every Middle-East expert, would be catastrophic.

A conservative foreign policy is one thing, a reckless one something else again. At the moment, Canada's approach in the Middle East is simply dangerous. We would contribute more by saying nothing.

Murray Dobbin is a guest senior contributing editor for rabble.ca, and has been a journalist, broadcaster, author and social activist for 40 years. He writes rabble's bi-weekly State of the Nation column, which is also found at The Tyee. He is the curator of rabble's Reinventing democracy, reclaiming the commons series.

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