Robert Fowler wakes up the Liberals in Montreal

Diplomat slams Liberals and Conservatives on foreign policy

Given that Canadian diplomat Robert Fowler was kidnapped in Niger and held in Al Qaeda’s rough hands for four months before being released last spring, his speech at the Liberal thinkers’ conference in Montreal this morning might well have been entirely coloured by his recent ordeal.

Instead, Fowler delivered a fierce, proud address anchored, not in that personal drama, but in his professional experience through three decades as a federal public servant, a diplomat-mandarin. When he did remind his audience of the kidnapping, it was to deftly accent his broader point.

And that point was barbed. Fowler charged the Liberals in the room with standing for little or nothing when it comes to foreign policy. He was even harder on the absent Conservatives, accusing their government of abandoning a Canadian legacy in the world, and, more specifically, of adopting an “Israel, right or wrong” policy that has undermined Ottawa’s credibility abroad. He asserted that there’s an “iron-clad link” between a failure to push for a fair resolution the Israel-Palestine problem and the rise of Islamist terrorism.

For making this connection, he anticipated the ugliest sort of attack. “It seems that anybody who presumes to acknowledge this blindingly obvious linkage is immediately labeled anti-Semitic,” Fowler said. He went on: “I guess we are supposed to presume that the allure of jihad will inexorably dim as Israel builds ever more settlements in illegally occupied territories in contravention of a myriad of international judgments.”

He is not, however, mainly preoccupied with Israel. In fact, his focus is Africa. But he sees the two topics as tied together, and here his kidnapping ordeal is relevant. He suggested that Islamist terrorism rooted in the Middle East will find rich recruiting grounds in Africa, if the crushing poverty and population issues of the continent are not somehow alleviated. “The continuing turmoil in the Middle East has very direct implications for the peace, prosperity and stability of Africans,” he said, “and not just North Africans.”

He offered this timely illustration: “No serious observer of the African scene could be unconcerned when Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb—my captors—offered, in early February, to give Nigerian Muslims training and weapons to fight Christians in the West African country, where more than 460 people were killed in sectarian clashes just last month.”

So daunting and distant are the challenges Fowler sketched that some will be tempted to resort, by way of reaction, to a variation on the “pragmatic” or “realist” stance: Canada can’t do much about such intractable issues. Of course the problems of Middle East or Africa are not Canada’s to solve alone.

But Fowler rhymed off a string of cases in which Canadian efforts have paid off: helping end civil war in Angola by combating the “blood diamonds” trade, pressing for the ban on anti-personnel land mines, leading the push for sanctions against apartheid in the bad old South Africa, and other examples.

These are not bush-league accomplishments. Credit for them crosses party lines—Tories rightly boast that it was Brian Mulroney and Joe Clark who took a principled, independent stand on apartheid. But Fowler laid it on Liberals particularly for failing to give fresh voice to idealism today. “To this observer it seems that the Liberals today don’t stand for much in the way of principles,” he said. “I have the impression that they will endorse anything and everything that will return them to power.”

There are two possible ways to respond to Fowler’s speech. One would be to take it seriously as a tough but considered criticism of the whole climate surrounding Canadian foreign policy. The other would be to discount it as a sort of provocative, entertaining, but ultimately impractical diversion.

In the buzz around the Montreal hotel conference space after he spoke, I heard some of the latter, a rather patronizing reaction. Bob’s a bit over-the-top, but, hey, he’s earned the right. Did he let us have it or what? Good speech. Now, let’s move on to more practical viewpoints…

It will be a shame if that’s all that comes from this bracing speech. If nothing else, Fowler’s pleas for attention to Canada’s aid spending should be heeded. He cited the shameful statistic that Canada stands 16th out of 22 donor countries ranked by the OECD in terms of the percentage of our wealth we devote to development assistance.

Last month’s federal budget announced a freeze of federal aid spending, after a final increase this year, at around $5 billion. There was no real political outcry over the targeting of this portion of federal spending more forcefully than any other at the start of a deficit-shrinking process. If politicians are wary of the more incendiary points Fowler raised, they could at least turn their attention to the simple question of how much we give.

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