Wells: Foreign policy? What foreign policy?

On the most fundamental matters of statecraft, Harper simply isn’t serious

In June 2006 in Quebec City, Peter MacKay told reporters he had asked the German Foreign Ministry to arrest the Iranian prosecutor who ordered Iranian-Canadian photographer Zahra Kazemi’s death. “We’re putting Iran on notice,” MacKay said. He was speaking in Quebec City when he said it. He looked lovely. Strong jaw.

What was less clear was what, precisely, Iran was on notice of. The Germans didn’t manage to nab the Iranian bad guy. In separate interviews I asked senior aides to MacKay and to Prime Minister Stephen Harper where he would have been tried, and under which law, if he had been caught. Both men giggled. Nobody had ever had any idea. The goal was not to be tough—to impose a cost on the Iranian for brutality against a Canadian citizen. The goal was to look tough. Canada must be forever grateful to the Germans for failing to intercept the Iranian prosecutor, for if they had caught him we would all have looked like fools for the foolishness of a rookie government.

I remembered the political staffers’ collegiate giggling this week when it was revealed that the most important speech Harper delivered in Parliament before the Iraq war, in which he urged Jean Chrétien to join George W. Bush’s coalition of the willing, was substantially lifted from a speech John Howard had delivered to the Australian parliament in Canberra 30 hours earlier.

Shortly after Harper was elected, reporters were banned from covering homecoming ceremonies for Canadian forces soldiers slain in Afghanistan. The decision infuriated—Liberals? Sucky journalists?—no, soldiers, who cleared heavy equipment from the tarmacs at military air bases so TV news crews stuck photographing the ceremonies from outside the bases’ perimeter fence would have a clear shot at the ceremonies. Eventually, the Harper government quietly dropped its policy.

Gordon O’Connor used to be Harper’s defence minister, and criticisms of O’Connor from across the centre aisle of the Commons were, as a rule, answered with angry assertions that as a veteran, O’Connor must be beyond reproach. The problem is that he kept screwing up. Prisoner abuse in Afghanistan? “The Red Cross or the Red Crescent is responsible to supervise their treatment,” O’Connor said of the prisoners. Not true. O’Connor retracted. His efforts to coherently explain Canadian policy with regard to detainees became so bogged down in incoherence that he was eventually relieved of his defence post.

In the shuffle that followed, Peter MacKay replaced O’Connor, only to be replaced at Foreign Affairs by Maxime Bernier, who in turn was replaced by David Emerson after Bernier ran into problems with his briefs. The highlight of Bernier’s tenure as Canada’s emissary to the world—I will restrict myself here to the professional highlight—was a trip to Afghanistan with boxes of Jos. Louis snack cakes for the troops.

This is the trio of foreign ministers Harper sent out to spread the message of a newly serious Canada, a Canada that was “back,” a Canada whose foreign policy would “actually be noticed”: a Pictou ward heeler, a strapping boulevardier and an erstwhile Liberal lame duck. If Harper is re-elected, and right now that’s probably the way to bet it, his next foreign minister will be his fourth, and Canada’s seventh in seven years.

So the problem with his Iraq speech is not so much that it was plagiarized, it’s that less than two days before he rose in the Commons to lecture a Liberal government on its lack of seriousness, Harper handed the speech-writing duties to a fellow whose main research tool was Google.

No wonder Harper felt so free, as the years wore on and Iraq turned out to be a nasty war, to skip lightly past the sentiments he expressed in that speech. Conviction cheaply obtained can, in all fairness, just as cheaply be discarded. Thus Harper announced just before the 2005 election that he had not meant “support” for the war to mean sending Canadian troops. What he had had in mind was more modest, perhaps a fruit basket or Max Bernier and his snack cakes. By this week, Harper’s spokespeople were eager to claim that a shooting war with massive casualties, the central foreign policy fiasco of the Bush presidency, should not rank among the important issues in an election. And that since Harper gave the speech five years ago it should be considered to have vanished in the mists of time.

But 25 U.S. soldiers died in Iraq in September. September 2008. If you believe decisions have consequences, you cannot disown them after they become inconvenient. That Harper—I’m sorry, Howard—speech is the road not travelled. If Canadians do not need to pay Iraq much mind today, it is because Jean Chrétien rejected Stephen Harper’s—I’m sorry, John Howard’s—counsel in 2003.

And if you think Iraq is a just war, then you must soldier on without Stephen Harper’s help because on this issue, he cut and ran a long time ago. In August 2003, he told this magazine: “There is no upside to the position Canada took.” He has long since found the upside.

Meanwhile, there are still Canadian soldiers fighting and dying in Afghanistan. I believe their cause to be just and would consider keeping them there past 2011. It’s true that in this campaign, Harper said there will be no extension past 2011, but who puts any stock in that? On the most fundamental matters of war, peace and statecraft, he simply isn’t serious.

Looking for more?

Get the Best of Maclean's sent straight to your inbox. Sign up for news, commentary and analysis.