How To Lose Friends in the Middle East

Paul Sedra on Canada's poor standing in the Arab world.
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September 18, 2012

Once upon a time, American tourists travelling in the Middle East were known to sew maple leaves onto their backpacks in the hope that masquerading as Canadians might stave off harangues about U.S. foreign policy. These days, they would be well advised to stick to Old Glory. At least the current president of the United States has made a rhetorical commitment to address the long-standing political differences between the U.S. and the Arab and Muslim worlds, even if he has not acted much in this vein since his much-vaunted Cairo speech. In stark contrast, the Canadian government, which once enjoyed a certain reputation for equanimity and even-handedness in its approach to Middle East affairs, has essentially shredded that reputation in a matter of only about five years. Indeed, at arguably the most important juncture that Arab political history has witnessed in a generation, Canada is, at best, the punch line to a bad joke among Arab leaders – and here I include both the remaining autocrats and the recently elected beneficiaries of the Arab uprisings.

Of course, it is no mystery why Canada has lost quite so much credibility quite so precipitously. Prime Minister Stephen Harper and his government have apparently embraced the dictum that Israel can do no wrong, regardless of the particular policies of the Israeli government. That Canada now binds itself to an Israeli leadership that refuses to end settlement construction in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, not only breaching international law, but also ignoring the admonitions of the U.S. government, says a great deal about what little importance Ottawa apparently attributes to opinion in the Arab world.


The standard line adopted by the Harper government, repeated ad nauseam both by the prime minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs John Baird, is that Canada needs to stand shoulder to shoulder with fellow democracies. Indeed, as Baird put it in his speech at this past January’s Herzliya conference, “The state of Israel embodies principles that Canada values and respects. It is a beacon of light in a region that craves freedom, democracy, human rights and the rule of law. A region where people are rising up against dictators, autocrats and oppressors who defied those basic principles, those values.”

So much rhetorical triumphalism regarding the Arab uprisings might lead one to believe that the Canadian government had championed them from the beginning. Alas, among western governments, Harper’s has consistently remained among the most suspicious of the transitions to democratic rule that are now underway in the Arab world. At the 2011 G8 summit, the prime minister pointedly refused to contribute to the Arab Spring transition fund – the Deauville Partnership – intended to smooth the democratic transitions in Egypt and Tunisia. By the time Harper had come around to the idea of making a contribution, at the 2012 summit at Camp David, Canada’s aid commitment was well surpassed by the commitments of fellow G8 members.

The lack of a significant aid commitment prompted Harper and his government to point to Canadian involvement in the Libyan war as a “contribution” in support of the Arab uprisings. That Canada should choose military combat as a means to support the Arab uprisings where, once upon a time, our country was best known for Lester Pearson’s pioneering role in peacekeeping could not but strike a historian like myself as odd. Equally perplexing for the observer of Canada’s role in the Middle East was the apparent disconnect between the prime minister’s support for the Libya mission and his reluctance to embrace democracy in neighbouring Egypt – a reluctance he voiced in his holiday interview with CTV in December 2011. One might conclude, in this light, that the government’s vigorous support for the Libyan war was a function not so much of an abstract commitment to democracy as to the politics of the NATO alliance or, indeed, Canada’s own considerable oil interests in the country, notably through Suncor Energy Inc. After all, when John Baird made his postwar visit to Tripoli in October 2011, he made a point of bringing Suncor executives with him, along with representatives of SNC-Lavalin and Pure Technologies.

That the Canadian government should breezily countenance these double standards in its Middle East policy is disturbing enough, given how negatively they impact our standing in the Arab world. But beyond the substance of the policy currently made in Ottawa, I worry as much about the process of policymaking – specifically, how well- (or ill-) equipped Canadian diplomats and policymakers are in dealing with the complexities of the Middle East.

In contrast to the United States government, which provides millions of dollars for the training of students in a range of Middle Eastern languages through Title VI centres at American universities, the Canadian government has no systematic framework for the training of Canadian students in foreign languages. Despite their origins in Cold War politics, the American Title VI centres have proved an enormous boon for the United States generally and the U.S. government specifically, insofar as they have enabled several generations of American students to gain the language skills necessary to permit them to become informed, capable interlocutors with the Arab world – whether as policymakers and diplomats, or, beyond government, as journalists and academics.

In the absence of the type of Title VI area studies centres that the U.S. government funds, only the most dedicated Canadian students can cobble together programs of study at their universities that will permit them to become similarly informed and capable as interlocutors. The vast majority who might have an interest in learning Arabic beyond the level of a beginner will have no opportunity to do so, given how scarce Arabic programs are in this country.

All in all, beyond a retrograde Middle East policy, Canada suffers from an astonishing lack of expertise on the Arab world. And while the former certainly harms our standing in the short term, the latter ensures that our standing will remain poor well into the future.

Photo courtesy of Reuters