Historian, journalist and fellow-in-residence, Carleton University
I would never counsel someone to traffic in heroin. But if you do happen to be selling heroin, and get caught, I would advise you to read Foreign Minister Stéphane Dion’s recent speech explaining why his government is selling combat vehicles to Saudi Arabia for tips on how you might justify your behaviour.
Canada’s new Liberal government has faced criticism for arms dealing with the kingdom, which is guilty of gross human rights violations and whose approach to beheadings differs from that of the so-called Islamic State mostly in its aversion to having them filmed.
The $15-billion deal was initiated by the previous Conservative government. Dion, in a speech at the University of Ottawa last month, said it was “concluded” by the Conservatives, which we now know to be false. A newly released memo from Global Affairs marked “secret” shows that Dion himself issued export permits for most of the shipments just this month.
But the claim that the contract was a done deal the Liberals could not reverse without incurring penalties and damaging Canada’s credibility was only part of Dion’s rationale—and here’s where the heroin comes in.
Dion also said that if Canada did not sell weapons to Saudi Arabia, another country would. True enough. And if you don’t sell that junkie smack, he’ll find it somewhere else. There’s a certain cold logic to this, but it hardly adds up to Sunny Ways.
And so Dion tried to balance the ethical components of Canada’s new approach to foreign policy with the practical. Hence the “guiding principle” of “responsible conviction” unveiled by Dion in his University of Ottawa address.
“This formulation means that my values and convictions include the sense of responsibility,” Dion said. “Not considering the consequences of my words and actions on others would be contrary to my convictions.”
Because cancelling the deal with the Saudis would result in lost Canadian jobs, the foreign minister implied, it would be irresponsible not to forge ahead with the deal—especially as another country would simply sell Saudi Arabia the weaponized vehicles instead.
“Of course, I would like to live in a world without weapons,” Dion said, erecting a flimsy straw man—few criticizing this deal do so on the basis that it doesn’t advance global disarmament.
“But my peaceful conviction must take the real world into account if I want to be a responsible decision maker.”
There is in fact a coherent argument for Canada selling weapons to the Saudis—beyond the jobs and money resulting from such deals—and the secret Global Affairs memo touches on it.
“Canada appreciates Saudi Arabia’s role as a regional leader promoting regional security and stability, as well as countering the threat posed by Iranian expansionism and by ISIS,” it reads, referring to Islamic State by an acronym.
A steadily intensifying cold war in the Middle East pits Iran and its mostly Shia allies against Saudi Arabia and other Sunni states. The civil war in Yemen, where Iran-backed Houthis fight a rival faction supported by a Saudi-led military coalition, is a proxy battleground. Syria, where Iran props up the government of Bashar al-Assad and Saudi Arabia backs various rebel groups, is another.
Notwithstanding Ottawa’s declared intention to re-establish diplomatic relations with Iran, Canada supports Saudi Arabia and Sunni states such as Jordan and Qatar in this regional power struggle. Most of Canada’s allies take the same approach.
In return, Saudi Arabia provides the West with oil, quietly cooperates with Israel and broadly supports American policy in the region. More recently, Saudi Arabia has joined the global coalition targeting Islamic State. And British Prime Minister David Cameron has credited counter-terrorism intelligence from Saudi Arabia with saving “potentially hundreds of lives here in Britain.”
This practical argument for Canada’s alliance with Saudi Arabia is not without gaping holes. If Saudi Arabia contributes to peace in the Middle East, it is also a destabilizing force, in the region and beyond, because of its aggressive promotion of the most retrograde and illiberal interpretation of Islam.
But even if one accepts that the benefits of close ties with Saudi Arabia outweigh the costs, let us at least acknowledge that those benefits derive from perceived realpolitik rather than principle.
Ottawa supports the Saudi dictatorship over the Iranian one because it believes that is where Canada’s interests lie. It’s little different than Washington, decades ago, arming proxies to fight the Soviets, or backing Saddam Hussein’s Iraq against revolutionary Iran. “Responsible conviction,” a phrase that is so malleable as to be meaningless, is an unsuitable slogan here. Dion might instead try: “Because it’s 1980.”