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Harper on security: tough talk, tepid action

The prime minister’s record doesn’t match his hawkish rhetoric. By Christopher Westdal.

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13 March, 2015
By: Christopher Westdal
Former Canadian ambassador to Ukraine and Russia

Stephen Harper’s gotten me so scared, I feel like hiding in a closet.

The prime minister is quite right — the highest purpose of government is to protect its citizens. Why, then, does he try to scare the bejesus out of them every day?

I thought leaders in times of crisis were expected to keep calm and carry on, maintaining stiff upper lips and carrying sticks bigger than their tongues. Not our guy. He mongers fear across the land — fear of criminals, fear of terrorists, fear of Iran, fear of Russia — fear in every case gussied up with purple prose, proud to be certain, proud to be loud.

It’s commonly assumed that all this fear will help Mr. Harper win the coming election as he poses — against a lurid background of crime and terror — as a tougher SOB than his rivals, at home and abroad.

I’m not so sure. I think folks might well tire of all this fantasy, see through the hypocrisy — the collision of tough talk with tepid action. All hat, no cattle.

Make no mistake: internationally — and to an extent I doubt most Canadians appreciate — the Harper government’s shrill rhetoric has cost us dear. Our UN Security Council loss was just the most obvious example.

The Harper government has been, by Canadian standards, uniquely bellicose in the world. Our government has been vocally skeptical about a nuclear deal with Iran. Our government is the only one to have labelled Russia “evil”. Our PM is the only one who had to “guess” whether he’d shake Russian President Putin’s hand (although he made sure his press secretary let everyone know how brave he’d been). Other G-20 leaders saw fit to mind their manners. Of course, those leaders — unlike ours — might actually have some role to play in bringing peace to Ukraine.

It’s mostly smoke and mirrors. Our leader’s macho poses don’t bear up to scrutiny. He’s not much good at following up with action.

If Vladimir Putin is the 21st century’s answer to Adolf Hitler, for instance, then why did Mr. Harper lead the opposition at NATO’s Wales summit against a U.S./UK pitch for a boost in defence spending? (It’s worth remembering that when President Obama convened a core-group Ukraine huddle at that summit, our PM — Kyiv’s most certain friend — was simply excluded.)

And if Russia is such a dire threat to our sovereignty in the Arctic, then why is our presence in that region so feeble after all those years of press releases and PMO photo-ops?

If the world is, quite suddenly, such a dangerous place, why is our defence budget so modest? Why is our weapon procurement process such a disaster?

If we’re such a good friend of Ukraine, why aren’t we giving that beleaguered state more help — faster and with fewer conditions? Looking at our record and rhetoric, it’s hard to escape the conclusion that we led Ukrainians to underestimate the risks of picking a fight with the Kremlin — and to overestimate the help they’d get from us if they did.

It is passing strange that neither the Liberals nor the New Democrats have taken Stephen Harper to task for the fundamental incoherence of his tough-guy foreign policy stance — the fact that he isn’t prepared to pay the price. All his hawkish rhetoric notwithstanding, he won’t pay for the machines — the fighters, the helicopters, the icebreakers — our forces would need to keep his promises … not if doing so would disturb the balance of a pre-election budget, a priority clearly higher than foreign policy coherence.

Not only are we short-changing the military, we’ve apparently given up on negotiation. We shut our embassy in Tehran down. With Ukraine, we were the only country to withdraw our ambassador from Moscow at the height of the crisis in Crimea. Across the board, our diplomats have been muzzled and marginalized, their operations nickel-and-dimed to death.

I like to think folks might be catching on, seeing through the hypocrisy in our tough-guy stance. The Harper government’s record in the world is nothing to run on. It’s a train wreck.

A recent EKOS poll gives me hope. It suggests that Harper’s message of fear resonates most with the Tory base, but that most Canadians aren’t buying it — and don’t think our civil rights should be trampled because one twisted terrorist stormed Parliament last fall. Bill C-51 may not be nearly so popular as the Tories like to think.

Surely our PM has better roles to play in our lives than fanning the flames of fear. There is no leadership in that, no valour, nothing to run on.

Surely our country has better roles to play in the world than ‘strident windbag’. There is no glory in that, no hope, nothing to stir our pride.

This post was originally published on iPolitics.

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