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Foreign Policy: Harper's Downfall?

On Kyoto and Afghanistan, he backed Bush. What if the US attacks Iran?

Michael Byers 5 Jun

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Public opinion is shifting.

"George W. Bush won" -- that's how Melanie Kirkpatrick of the Wall Street Journal described the outcome of the Canadian election in January.

Stephen Harper has always supported the Bush administration. In March 2003, he co-authored an article in Kirkpatrick's paper criticizing the Canadian government's decision to stay out of the Iraq war. The following month, in a speech to the House of Commons, he said:

We in the Canadian Alliance support the American position today on this issue because we share its concerns and its worries about the future of the world if Iraq is left unattended…In an increasingly globalized and borderless world, the relationship between Canada and the United States is essential to our prosperity, to our democracy and to our future…

Of course, many reasonable people believed Iraq possessed at least some chemical and biological weapons. And few Canadians would question the desirability of good relations with the United States. What was most striking about Harper's speech was not its content but its evangelical tone, which comes through -- even on the written page -- in the closing sentence:

Mr. Speaker, in the days that follow may God guide the actions of the President of the United States and the American people; may God save the Queen, her Prime Minister and all her subjects; and may God continue to bless Canada.

The "new" Stephen Harper

During the past year, Harper has eschewed such rhetoric and portrayed himself as a moderate and secular conservative -- one who supports mainstream Canadian values and institutions, including social tolerance, environmental protection and public health care. He has muted the fundamentalist Christians within his caucus. And he has continued the strategy, first deployed during the election campaign, of dominating the news agenda with a daily drumbeat of clear, relatively innocuous and easily-attained objectives. With the Liberals leaderless and incoherent, Harper's only real opposition is the NDP -- who've only 29 seats and few resources.

Harper clearly believes he'll win a majority in the next election, which is probably just eight to 10 months away. But such confidence is misplaced -- if only because foreign policy could dominate the next campaign.

Foreign policy and Canadian elections

It is a basic tenet of Canadian political science that foreign policy doesn't matter in elections. In fact, it hasn't mattered since 1988 when Brian Mulroney used the U.S.-Canada Free Trade Agreement to drive a wedge between his Progressive Conservatives, on the one side, and the Liberals and NDP on the other. Foreign policy issues are usually too complex, under-reported or distant in their implications to register with most Canadians.

Stephen Harper adheres to the view that foreign policy lacks electoral significance and, for this reason, feels safe following the Bush administration's lead. He made a lousy deal on softwood lumber, allowing U.S. forest companies to keep $1 billion in illegal gains. He agreed to share surveillance information from the Northwest Passage with the Pentagon without receiving recognition of Canada's sovereignty claim in return. He has moved towards participation in missile defence, taken sides in the Israel-Palestine conflict, and failed to protect Afghan detainees from torture. But how many people know this? And how many really care?

Still, three foreign policy issues could soon achieve unusual degrees of prominence. When the "new" Stephen Harper lets the mask slip on these issues, exposing his neo-conservatism, Canadians will notice -- and they likely will care.

Climate change: A tipping point

Climate change is the greatest challenge facing humanity in the 21st century. In the 200 years since industrialization -- a mere geological millisecond -- we've increased the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere by about 35 percent, with a third of that in the last four decades. Nine of the last 10 years have been the warmest years on record. Over the same period, 2.3 million km² of Arctic sea-ice have been lost. The Greenland ice sheet is melting too, probably irrevocably, and when this occurs sea levels will rise by seven metres worldwide. Droughts, hurricanes and tornadoes are increasing in frequency and severity. Millions of species face extinction as habitats change faster than they can adapt and evolve. Human health is also at risk: according to the World Health Organization, millions of people are already threatened by increases in malaria, water-borne disease and malnutrition that are directly linked to our changing climate.

Canada is on the frontline. Melting permafrost is imposing huge costs on northern communities. Glaciers are shrinking, threatening prairie farmers and municipal water supplies. In Ontario, hotter and more humid summers are straining electrical grids and contributing to heavy smog. Residents of the Atlantic provinces find themselves exposed to hurricanes and tropical storms. Here in British Columbia, warmer winters and drier summers are contributing to forest fires, declining salmon stocks and an epidemic of pine beetles.

In the face of this monumental crisis, the Harper government is mimicking the Bush administration, which, for years, defied mainstream scientific opinion by denying outright that climate change was even happening. The Conservatives have downplayed the scale of the problem, rejected the modest emission reduction targets of the Kyoto Protocol, advocated voluntary measures rather than a regulatory approach and eliminated programs designed to promote energy conservation.

There is little doubt that future generations will regard Harper and others as morally culpable for failing to act in the face of clear and present danger. But the prime minister is calculating that climate change is not yet an electoral issue, at least not for those Canadians who might vote for him. He is wrong. Media coverage of climate change is trending upwards and, as a result, Canadians are finally clueing in.

Over the last decade, the Toronto Star printed an average of 242 articles per year that mentioned climate change. That number rose to 422 articles in 2005 and, at the current rate, will exceed 500 articles in 2006. The more conservative Globe and Mail has a ten-year average of 180 articles, with 327 in 2005 and, at the current rate, will run 335 articles in 2006. Both Time magazine and National Geographic recently ran cover stories on the climate change crisis. Last month, even the Vancouver Sun ran a satellite photograph on its front page, altered to show how sea-level rise resulting from climate change will inundate much of the Lower Mainland within two or three centuries.

Social scientists speak of "tipping points" in public awareness. When a tipping point is reached, seemingly deep-rooted attitudes can change very quickly. When the tipping point on climate change arrives, opinions will change across Canadian society. Conservative voters concentrated in rural and suburban areas are even more vulnerable to climate change than urban elites. It will also become apparent that Canadian policymakers have been negligent on this issue, as compared to policymakers elsewhere. Almost two years ago, Tony Blair warned that climate change could be "so far-reaching in its impact and irreversible in its destructive power, that it alters radically human existence." On this all-important issue, which is poised to become an election issue, Stephen Harper is way behind the curve.

Afghanistan: mission impossible

The first Canadian soldiers arrived in Afghanistan shortly after the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Centre and Pentagon: a photograph of Canadian commandos handling Afghan detainees was published on January 22, 2002. That same month, 750 regular soldiers were sent to Kandahar as part of a U.S.-led "counter-insurgency" mission. Four of those soldiers were killed by U.S. "friendly fire" before their unit returned home in July 2002.

From August 2003 to October 2005, approximately 6000 Canadian soldiers were deployed -- over five successive six-month rotations -- to serve with a UN-authorized, NATO-led peacekeeping mission in Kabul. At this point, almost all Canadian military assets in Afghanistan were abruptly returned to the non-UN-authorized, U.S.-led counter-insurgency mission in Kandahar. But that mission had become much more dangerous, with the insurgents mirroring their Iraqi counterparts in using roadside bombs. Adding fuel to the fire, heavy-handed U.S. tactics, especially the use of air power against villages, was leading to much higher levels of local resentment against foreign troops. The Canadian relocation to Kandahar was linked to a reduction in U.S. troop numbers that was driven by problems in Iraq and domestic pressures at home. The plan was to have the UN-authorized, NATO-led mission take over in Kandahar this spring, but this has been delayed -- in part because other NATO countries are concerned about the tactics used by the U.S. military.

Stephen Harper supports the U.S.-led counter-insurgency mission, and by extension those tactics. He's recently defended a detainee transfer agreement between Canada and Afghanistan that does not provide Canada with a right either to verify the condition of transferred detainees, or to oppose their onward transfer to other countries. He also seems unconcerned that our war-fighting role alongside the United States could cloud the perception of Canada as an independent actor. Nor has he evinced any concern for the dangers that our participation in the mission might bring. As Canadian Major-General Andrew Leslie warned last August: "Every time you kill an angry young man overseas, you're creating 15 more who will come after you."

Canadians have begun asking themselves, Will the counter-insurgency mission actually improve the security of Canadians and ordinary Afghans? Are Canadian soldiers risking their lives in a mission that is destined to fail? Wouldn't their efforts be better directed towards stopping genocide in Darfur, or participating in any of the 15 separate peacekeeping operations currently being conducted by the UN -- in Congo, Ethiopia and Eritrea, Kosovo, Liberia and elsewhere? Harper sought to cut off consideration of these questions when, last month, he abruptly called a vote on extending the Afghanistan mission. He's also sought to reduce the impact of casualties on public opinion by banning the media from the airfield ceremonies that welcome dead soldiers home.

At least 17 Canadians have lost their lives in Afghanistan, while many more have been wounded, some seriously. Casualty figures in the 100s are possible in the months and years ahead. Four years ago, Canadians might have tolerated such loses. Memories of 9/11 were fresh in our minds. The Bush administration hadn't yet shifted its attention to Iraq, nor squandered international sympathy by bombing villages and mistreating detainees. The limitations of counter-insurgency had not yet been reinforced. On Afghanistan, a second key foreign policy issue, Stephen Harper is again behind the curve.

Iran: The next war?

George W. Bush is in desperate straits. A failed foreign policy is on display in Iraq; an inability to lead was confirmed by Katrina; "Scooter" Libby has been indicted for perjury; "Kenny Boy" Lay has been convicted of fraud. The midterm congressional elections are just five months away, with control of the Senate in play.

It may be time for another war. Margaret Thatcher's defence of the Falklands ensured her re-election in 1983. Fifteen years later, a beleaguered Bill Clinton fired 79 so-called "Monica missiles" at Sudan and Afghanistan; a film along similar lines -- entitled "Wag the Dog" -- soon followed. The declaration of a "global war on terrorism" ensured Republican victories in the 2002 midterm elections; two years later it carried Bush to a second presidential term. Evidence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, and of links between Saddam and Al-Qaeda, was manufactured to serve the same ends. And the use of military force abroad is one of few significant things that the president can now do, given a multitude of domestic constraints.

Bush has begun rattling sabres over Iran, referring to the country as an "outlaw regime" and explicitly threatening violence. And of course, the Iranian government is hardly composed of angels: two years ago, International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors discovered that Tehran had been trying to enrich uranium for decades. At that point, Washington began pushing for the matter to be referred to the UN Security Council, which, unlike the IAEA, has the power to impose mandatory sanctions. The U.S. needs the UN in this instance because it cannot create additional economic pressure on its own, having suspended commercial relations with Iran since the fundamentalist revolution in 1979.

European governments initially opposed sending the matter to the Security Council, because they feared Moscow would threaten to veto any stringent resolution and that the resulting deadlock might then -- as occurred with regard to Iraq -- be seized upon as a justification for war. Instead, France, Germany and Britain sought to negotiate an agreement whereby Iran would cease enriching uranium in return for membership in the WTO, access to new civilian aircraft, and a light water nuclear reactor that, although less useful for producing nuclear weapons, would serve almost as well for the production of electricity. This approach made considerable progress -- until the election last year of hardliner Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as Iran's new president.

Last September, Ahmadinejad defiantly reasserted his country's right to enrich uranium. One week later, he called for Israel to be "wiped off the map." The former position may have some merit; the latter clearly does not. Yet the two positions are somewhat related.

Two of Iran's neighbours -- Pakistan and Russia -- have nuclear weapons, while two others -- Afghanistan and Iraq -- are occupied by U.S. forces. And Israel, just 1500 km away, last year threatened a pre-emptive strike similar to its bombing, in 1981, of an Iraqi nuclear reactor that was under construction near Baghdad. The threat of an Israeli strike -- or, more likely, an American strike in support of Israel -- must be taken seriously. Washington has provided Tel Aviv with 500 "bunker-buster" bombs capable of penetrating up to four metres of concrete. American and Israeli forces have also tested their ability to shoot down long-range Shahab-3 missiles, the most obvious vehicle for Iranian retaliation. As early as January 2005, Seymour Hersh reported that U.S. commandos were already in Iran pinpointing underground nuclear facilities.

That Washington is involved on both sides of the affair -- stoking Iran's fears while agitating about the transgressions that these fears generate -- is reflective of a broader hypocrisy. The CIA estimates that Israel, which has never ratified the 1970 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, possesses more than 200 nuclear warheads. The same agency can still not produce conclusive evidence that Iran, a party to the treaty, has a nuclear weapon -- as opposed to a nuclear energy -- program. Yet Iran's leaders, like Saddam before them, are presumed to be seeking weapons and have been vilified on that basis.

Bombing as election gambit?

Part of the explanation for this dichotomous approach lies in Washington's uncritical support for Israel, especially since Bush became president. Another part of the explanation is revenge. The Iranian revolutionaries revealed the limitations of American power when, in 1979-81, they were able to hold 52 hostages in the U.S. embassy in Tehran for 444 days. A third part of the explanation is fear -- that the ongoing chaos in Iraq could work to the advantage of Iran, which, like its neighbour, has a largely Shiite population.

A fourth and final part of the explanation is the usefulness that a new and very foreign enemy could provide to a beleaguered Republican Party during an important election campaign.

The UN Security Council will not authorize the use of force against Iran -- even though Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice recently made the unprecedented offer of direct talks if Tehran suspended its uranium enrichment program and re-opened its facilities to IAEA inspectors. Other countries know that Iran poses no immediate threat, and that sanctions take time to bite. They also remember how Washington relied upon a UN resolution to justify the Iraq war just four months after assuring the world that its terms provided no "automaticity." Russia is wisely insisting that any new resolution must specify that it does not authorize military action.

The Bush administration knows this, but wants to be seen -- especially by moderate Republicans and swing-voters -- to have exhausted multilateral options. In the end, the congressional election timetable and the polls are what matter. If Bush's electoral strategists deem it necessary, the U.S. will bomb Iranian nuclear facilities regardless, and justify its actions as self defence.

In international law, any use of force in self defence must be both necessary and proportionate, and no one is suggesting that Iran is anywhere close to building a nuclear bomb that is small enough to put on a missile. Nevertheless, efforts are already being made to establish a new "coalition of the willing," not to join in the raids, but to provide the diplomatic support necessary to weather the ensuing storm. Last month, Tony Blair fired Jack Straw, his experienced foreign secretary, for having publicly ruled out the use of force against Iran.

Successive Canadian governments have studiously avoided the Iran issue, except when our own citizens -- such as photographer Zahra Kazemi and academic Ramin Jahanbegloo -- have been killed or arbitrarily detained. But if Bush goes to war this fall, he'll want explicit support from Stephen Harper -- support that our prime minister is already planning to give. In April, at a press conference with her Canadian counterpart, Condoleezza Rice criticized Iran for continuing "to defy the will of the international community." Peter MacKay immediately volunteered that Canada "very, very, very strongly believes that there has to be a clear and consistent message coming from the international community." By which he presumably meant: agreement with whatever moves Rice and her cronies decide to make.

So, how will Canadians react if their government supports an illegal, premature and largely unprovoked attack on a sovereign country? Stephen Harper is betting that they won't change their votes, since foreign policy doesn't matter electorally. Yet to win a majority, the prime minister needs to maintain the fiction that he's not a clone of George W. Bush. And whether it's climate change, Afghanistan, or a new war against Iran, the most damning evidence of Harper's continuing neo-conservatism will be found, not in domestic policy, but in a slavish adherence to the foreign policies of a floundering and fading American president.

Michael Byers, author of War Law, holds the Canada Research Chair in Global Politics and International Law at the University of British Columbia. He will be speaking at the Vancouver Public Library at 7:30 p.m. on Friday, June 9 as part of the Necessary Voices series. All are welcome; admission is free.  [Tyee]

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