Photo: dfait.maeci/Flickr

Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird is on a long visit to the Middle East. Like Canadian foreign policy in general these days, the exact purpose of the trip is a bit murky.

No doubt it will be another opportunity for Mr. Baird to demonstrate that the Harper government refuses to go along to get along, as he loves repeating. “We want to continue to promote Canadian values,” the Minister says. That means “democratic societies that respect the rule of law,” including the rights of women, minorities and gays. An ethical foreign policy, in other words, that won’t sell its soul by co-operating with the likes of China, for example, except when it will.

Among other destinations on this trip, Mr. Baird is visiting Jordan, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Bahrain and Iraq. What all have in common, except maybe Iraq, is that none is a democracy or a noted defender of women’s or gays’ rights. Nor have any of them enjoyed an Arab Spring, although Bahrainis tried. All but Iraq are autocratic states, while Iraq roils with violence, human rights abuses, extreme sectarianism and the increasing authoritarianism of its nominally democratic government.

Iraq’s plight is the direct consequence of George W. Bush’s disastrous invasion, the very one Stephen Harper sorely wanted Canada to join. As it happens, the invasion also resulted in Shiite Iran having very considerable influence on the Shiite-dominated Iraqi government. Iran, in Mr. Baird’s other most-repeated mantra, “constitutes the greatest threat to peace and security in the world.” Yet as the minister recognizes, despite Iraq’s clout, Iraq is “a key regional player” with lots of oil and there’s a “strong potential” in the country to advance Canadian trade and investment. Life gets complicated sometimes and sometimes you just have to go along to get along.

One of the countries the minister is skipping this time is Saudi Arabia, having visited there a year ago. It’s very much a Harper government favourite, being Iran’s most serious competitor for regional domination. In 2011, Canada approved the export of $4-billion in military weapons to the Saudi Kingdom. According to Postmedia News, the Saudi royal family are “believed to have used Canadian-made armoured vehicles to help put down antigovernment protests in neighboring Bahrain during the early days of the Arab Spring… The joint Saudi-Bahraini crackdown was largely ignored by Canada and other Western states because of Bahrain’s strategic relationship with the U.S.” Bahrain, which has commercial interest for Canada, is another of Mr. Baird’s stops this week. Sometimes you just have to go along…

Each year, the U.S. Department of State issues a highly regarded human rights assessment for the world’s nations. Of course Saudi Arabia is notorious for its singularly perverse treatment of women. The State Department’s latest report also notes “pervasive restrictions on universal rights such as freedom of expression…and assembly, …and religion; violence against women, trafficking in persons, and discrimination on the basis of gender, religion, sect, race, and ethnicity were common.” Gays are not tolerated. Canadian weapon imports are warmly welcomed.

In Jordan, where Minister Baird gushed about his close relationship with his Jordanian equivalent, the State Department tells us that “The three most significant continuing human rights problems were citizens’ inability to peacefully change their government, abuses committed with impunity by security services, and violence against women.”

Qatar, where the monarch appoints the government, is more of the same. Citizens can’t peacefully change their government and it’s not a great place to be a woman or gay.

Soon it becomes repetitive. The United Arab Emirates violate “a number of fundamental practices.” There are no democratically elected institutions and “citizens do not have the right to change their government or to form political parties”.

So on to Bahrain, noteworthy, so the State Department reports, for “the inability of citizens to peacefully change their government…the arbitrary arrest and detention of thousands, including medical personnel, human rights activists, and political figures, sometimes leading to their torture and/or death in detention.” None of this was raised by the Minister, though he formally thanked Bahrain for its courageous stand on violations of human rights, at least those in Iran. George Orwell would have understood. Anyway, the Middle East is a complicated place.

In fact it’s much more than that. The Middle East is among the world’s most dangerous, complex, and perhaps even intractable hotspots, especially when you throw in Israel and the West Bank, which Mr. Baird is about to visit. There are simple approaches to them all, and they are all wrong, as many fear he will demonstrate again in the next few days.

The Middle East is also home to many disparate matters that legitimately concern other nations, including, naturally, Canada. This encompasses everything from security and conflict to oil, trade, human rights, refugees, arms and visitors’ visas. On many of these issues, for reasons often hard to fathom and never plausibly explained, the Harper government has played a consistently unhelpful role.

While it’s inevitable that Canadians will disagree on many of these confounding issues, it doesn’t mean all disagreements must be partisan. Foreign policy needn’t be, and shouldn’t be, just another realm in which the Conservatives (and, yes, other parties) never stop seeking political advantage. Most of these issues are too important to serve as the fodder for spin doctors, even those disguised as senior government ministers, hell-bent on making points against their political enemies.

This article was first published in the Globe and Mail.

Photo: dfait.maeci/Flickr


Gerry Caplan

Gerald Caplan has an MA in Canadian history and a Ph.D. in African history from the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London. He is an author, teacher, media commentator,...