Omar Alghabra: Harper's Approach Lacks Nuance

Part of the OpenCanada series Stephen Harper's Persian Problem.
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April 6, 2012
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This week, OpenCanada asked six experts on the Middle East about Canada's current policy towards Iran. Below, Omar Alghabra, a former Liberal MP with roots in the Middle East, contextualizes the current government's Iran stance within its regional strategy. To read the other responses, click here.

Do you support the current government’s policy on Iran? 

I am uncomfortable with the excessive muscularity of the Conservatives’ tone and approach to foreign policy. If you recall, Mr. Harper did an interview with John Ivison of the National Post before his trip to China, and much of that interview – I don’t know if it was for the reason of the journalist or Mr. Harper’s choosing – focused on Iran. I felt that the aggressive nature of preparing the public for a military conflict with Iran, in my mind, certainly does not resonate with me. I don’t think it represents Canada’s traditional role on the international scene.

I’m not actually saying that the Canadian government should not focus on Iran. I am highlighting my differences with the approach that they’ve chosen to take. I think for the first time ever, Canada is using a more aggressive tone than the United States. So it is a contrast, it is a notable contrast, and I differ with them on that, not the fact that we should all be worried and focused on the file.

Is it that Canadians have changed their views on foreign policy, or that the current government doesn’t represent them accurately?

Canadians in general tend to be positive about Canada’s role internationally. In my opinion, most people have not picked up on many of the nuances. If you talk to certain specialists, they would identify the change in foreign policy. But if you speak to a person who was not necessarily very much involved in foreign policy or paying much attention to foreign policy.

Is the root of this different stance ideological or about domestic politics?

I think it’s both. I think ideologically this prime minister has a reductive simplistic point of view of the world. Let’s not forget he has hardly ever done any travel before he became prime minister. His worldly view is less nuanced. Now I’m sure it’s much more nuanced today than it was six years ago, but I think his view of the world is simplistic and he also puts a lot more weight on the muscular side than the diplomatic side.

We are also seeing that in many other approaches – whether it’s Afghanistan or his initial approach to China. It tends to be his knee-jerk reaction to be more muscular, to be more aggressive. I think it’s certainly his mindset and how he believes a foreign policy should be run, but I think there are a lot of people that are also talking about domestic political calculations.

How much are those domestic political calculations impacting his foreign policy?

I think it would naïve for any of us to assume that no government takes into account domestic politics when they are developing foreign policy. No government is immune from doing that. Some governments tend to still try to do the right thing, and other are heavily influenced by that no matter what the right things is.

How would you approach Iran differently than Prime Minister Harper?

I would make it very clear, we are not interested in seeing any country obtain nuclear weapons, Iran included. We would work with our international partners on finding a diplomatic way to ensure that we stop proliferation of nuclear weapons. I support utilization of multilateral institutions; I support their utilization of diplomatic channels.

And I’m not saying this is not happening – it’s happening. But it doesn’t look like Canada is a champion of these channels and these approaches - I would call on Mr. Harper to do that. I would remind him and I would remind the Canadian public that there’s only one reason why Canada, for the first time ever in its history, lost a seat on the United Nations Security Council. I don’t necessarily seek the world’s approval for everything we do – I think we should always be faithful to our principles and our values, even if they are sometimes controversial. It’s not like we’ve never been controversial in the past, however, in the past, we have taken some controversial views – the rest of the world saw, even if they disagreed with us, saw that it was a byproduct or result of our values, and that there were faithful principles behind it, and we were faithful to our own institutions.

This time around, people are saying, “Not only do we disagree with you, but we don’t know where this change is coming from. It doesn’t tend to be consistent with Canada’s historical values and stances.”

Has Harper’s policy changed since Netanyahu visited?

I did observe a change. I think the first time I noticed it was at the press conference that Mr. Harper held with Mr. Netanyahu. When he explicitly said that he preferred that the matter is resolved in a peaceful way. I did notice a shift, and I really can’t explain it. It’s a welcome shift. I also noticed how similar it’s become now to the United States at home.

Photo courtesy of Reuters

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