Canada Foreign Policy
Monday, July 31, 2006
  Stephen Martin? Paul Harper?

At last, there are analysts emerging with the argument that Stephen Harper’s Conservative version of foreign policy differs only marginally from the Liberal variant offered up by predecessor Paul Martin. And all it took for this to happen was a major crisis in the Middle East.

Really the only factor that might distinguish the current from the former PM is passion. Harper, the argument goes, is determined, and at all costs, to show solidarity with Washington’s understanding of the ongoing dispute between Israel and Hezbollah in Lebanon. Martin may have sympathized with the Americans and Israelis, but his chronic dithering would surely have gotten in the way, derailing or diluting his enthusiasm and commitment. As James Travers notes, “It was Liberals, not Conservatives, who began sliding away from the United Nation's Middle East consensus. Harper only completed a controversial transition that now places Canada alongside George W. Bush in offering what amounts to blanket approval of Israeli actions.” In addition, “an insider's joke circling among diplomats and bureaucrats is that the new government has tilted Canada's support for Israel from the 110 per cent of Paul Martin's era to 150 per cent” [cited in James Travers’ ‘Harper’s Foreign Policy Hits Home’, The Toronto Star, 29 July 2006. Story posted at].

Last week a stray Israeli bomb killed four UN observers in southern Lebanon, among them one Canadian. Both UN Secretary General Kofi Annan and Harper responded immediately. For his part, Annan could not rule out the possibility that the bombing may have been deliberate. And just as quickly, Harper dismissed any notion that it would be possible to conclude there may have been intent, adding the real question to focus on is why observers were left in a war zone.

And so what we may have now is a situation where Stephen Harper and Paul Martin share a common fate. Both ascended to this country’s top political office, but it may yet turn out neither one stays there for very long. It seems not to be policy, not to be substance that endangers careers. Rather, style rules over substance. Martin’s dithering made him erratic, though he clearly felt it necessary to walk away from Jean Chretien’s foreign policy legacy. Stephen Harper, adopting as his own most of what Martin sought to accomplish, appears as a resolute, firm, stubborn PM. Perhaps too firm, too stubborn. Where Martin seemed malleable, Harper now comes across as inflexible and uncompromising. And so, there is speculation that Harper’s posturing during this Middle East crisis may just end up costing him his government. At the very least, it may end up costing him votes in the one province where he seems intent on making the greatest inroads.

According to Simon Doyle, writing for The Hill Times, “Prime Minister Stephen Harper is risking his chances of winning Quebec by taking a pro-Israel position on the Middle East crisis and allying himself closely with the foreign policy of U.S. President George W. Bush, say critics.” Doyle, who does note that governments rarely if ever implode over just a single issue, goes on to point out that “Christian Bourque, vice-president of research at Léger Marketing in Montreal, said the media in Quebec have played up the conflict as ‘World War III’ and Lebanese Canadians have been very vocal…Mr. Bourque said one of the largest Lebanese Canadian communities is in Montreal, which is influencing how the media are relaying the news. The situation has been intensified by the death of a Lebanese-Canadian family of seven visiting Lebanon, who was recently killed in an Israeli air strike, he said” [cited in Simon Doyle, ‘PM Harper’s Pro-Israel Stance Risks Winning Quebec,’ The Hill Times, 31 July 2006. Story posted at].

And some of the latest polling data indeed suggest the Tories may be less endearing to the electorate, and that probably because of their handling of international affairs. According to John Wright, vice president of Ipsos Reid, “the numbers suggest foreign policy has put a dent in Harper's popularity. His government's support dipped most in the three areas of the country Quebec, Atlantic Canada and B.C. which recent polls have shown are most uncomfortable with his Mideast and Afghanistan policies.” Perhaps the news is most painful for the Tories in Quebec, where the Ipsos Reid numbers say the Bloc now has support of 41% of those polled, compared to only 27% for the Conservatives (and 21% for the Liberals). Only months ago, growing speculation hinted Conservative support might overwhelm the Bloc in Quebec. Now nationwide support for the Tories stands at 39%, down from 43% in May. In all, “the drop was 12 points each in B.C. and Atlantic Canada, and six points in Quebec.” Harper may still have a 60% approval rating, but Wright stresses there is “nothing in the poll results [that] should encourage Harper to want an early election” [all citations and Ipsos Reid data cited in this paragraph appear in Norma Greenaway’s ‘Mideast, Afghanistan Underpin Conservative Slip in Polls,’ The National Post, 31 July 2006. Story posted at].

In the latest developments, Foreign Minister Peter MacKay says “The United Nations could help ‘pave a path to lasting peace’ in the Mideast if the international body approves a proposal to send a large intervention force to southern Lebanon” [‘MacKay Pushes for UN Force,’ CP, 31 July 2006. Story published in The Toronto Star and posted at]. MacKay, however, does not say if Canada will be directly involved in any peacekeeping, intervention force. In the Middle East, fighting continues into a twentieth day, and Israeli PM Ehud Olmert now says there will be no ceasefire. In neighbouring Syria, President Bashar al-Assad has instructed the country’s army to raise its readiness level, saying his support is with the Lebanese Hezbollah.

Posted by Stan Markotich
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A discussion of geopolitics and Canada's role in the world. A series of essays to examine the components of Canadian foreign policy making. Psychological, sociological, historical, and cultural variables impacting Canada's perceptions of the world.

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