John Baird's response to the Israel/Iran conflict
Feb 6, 2012

John Baird's response to the Israel/Iran conflict

Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird
Right now, we have one sovereign United Nations member making explicit overtures about launching a unilateral military attack on another sovereign United Nations member. It isn't just rhetoric, there is a nontrivial possibility that this might actually occur and they have both the motive and the means to pull off this attack - the latter provided by far the most powerful military power the world has ever seen. I am talking, of course, about the possibility of Israel attacking Iran, but I think it is sometimes better stated without the explicit reference to remind us of how extreme this is and how we would reject to the situation were it in any other context. The consequences of the attack, beyond the immediate loss of life, may entail having the entire region spiraling out of control into a protracted war in Lebanon, Gaza, Syria and beyond that could necessitate wider scale international intervention.

To me, the appropriate reaction to such a threat would be widespread condemnation of unilateral military action. Major allies of the Israel - of which Canada is one of its staunchest - ought to take the role of persuading Israel not to take such an dangerous and misguided action. While threatening disincentives are the optimal route, even taking a rhetorical condemnation is acceptable. This is what Obama has done in a recent interview saying that they are expressing their "concerns" - which is laudable - while not mentioning a single disincentive they may levy on Israel such as reducing the US's staggering military and diplomatic aid to Israel - which is not.

Canada's reaction, however, has not even reached the US's level. Instead of opposing the idea of a unilateral Israeli strike against Iran, Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird has nothing but supportive rhetoric for Israel. He went to the further extreme of making holocaust comparisons in the context of a discussion about Iran:
"Obviously you can understand why the Jewish people and why Israel would take [Ayatollah Ali Khamenei] seriously. Hitler wrote Mein Kampf more than a decade before he became Chancellor of Germany. And they take these issues pretty seriously here."
Oh Godwin. One can have harsh things to say about the Iranian regime. But it no sense should they be compared to Nazi Germany. They are wildly different in everything from worldview, ideology, religion and - importantly - military capacity. Not to mention the realpolitik that nothing approaching in any way the Holocaust could possibly occur. We should be encouraging reasonable dialogue and engagement with all parties, not engaging in Holocaust rhetoric. One can say things strongly, but empty and only incendiary comments have no value and frankly it is both insulting and embarrassing, as a Canadian, to have my representatives saying such things. For a long time, charges of anti-semitism have been leveled against those that speak out against the rhetoric and policies of the government of Israel, a conflation that is intolerable. This rhetoric is itself damaging to Israel and encourages violence and aggression against them, and a true friend of Israel would attempt to dissuade them from such rhetoric, not enabling them.

One response people give to warmongering comments by the West is to note that Iran also says such things; indeed, they say things objectively more ridiculous such as Holocaust or 9/11 denial. However, such comments should be condemned, not mimicked. Escalating rhetoric greases the path to escalating conflict and war. We have a moral responsibility to take the high road and not descend to the hyper partisan chutzpah that feels the need to engage in Holocaust rhetoric. Baird went on to say that Iran poses a "significant security threat to Canada and the West". This is just blatant hawkish rhetoric; it is patently clear that Iran poses essentially zero threat to a country on a different continent like Canada which shares a border with the world's largest military power.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, who recently agreed to head a unity Fatah-Hamas government, put a useful charge to Baird when the Canadian delegation visited Palestine last week to unilaterally criticize Palestine. It is clear that Canada is one of Israel's staunchest friends and so he didn't implore them to help Palestinians directly. He asked Canada to help their friend achieve peace and to use Canada's close ties to Israel to help persuade them to abandon the settlement activity that is indubitably impeding the peace process. I certainly agree. It seems, however, that this advice fell on deaf ears.

Public Opinion:
Baird also claimed that the majority of people in the Middle East are very worried by Iran. I would postulate it is exactly the opposite: they are worried about an attack by Israel on Iran not the other way around. Indeed, 70% of Arabs in the Middle East who think Iran is seeking a nuclear weapon believe they have a right to one; 92% do among those who believe Iran's intentions are peaceful. 57% of people think it would be a positive for them to get a nuclear weapon, not just a right. 88% and 77% of people in the Middle East believe that Israel and the US, respectively, pose the biggest threat to them. I think it is safe to say that both of these outlandish statements by Baird are just patently false.

Canadian public opinion is also interesting. For the most part, Canadians believe that their government is "striking the right balance" on the Israel/Palestine issue; so says 48%. However, if one delves a bit deeper into the policies this is not born out. For instance, only 11% of Canadians oppose the Palestinian bid for statehood recognition at the UN. Yet Harper and his team are vigorously opposing precisely this. Indeed, Canada is one of the staunchest supports of Israel both in policy and rhetoric of any other country in the UN even surpassing the United States. Part of the problem is that the public is not well informed. Only 35% actually support the Palestinian bid, and while that is more than three times as much as those that oppose it, the majority (53%) simply don't have an opinion on the subject. This is why I think discussion of Israel and Canada's relationship - and in particular the hyper partisan nature of it from the current administration - are crucial.

Cracks in the Harper veneer:
The Harper government has long tried to present itself as pragmatic moderates opposed to attempts by the left to portray it as far right ideologues. He has deliberately suppressed gay marriage and abortion, suppressed discussing his religiosity, avoided hawkish statements, and repeats ad nauseum his focus in a well managed economy. For the most part, Harper has been successful at turning the public eye to this this image. However, this image is at least to some extent a facade with Harper himself - and many of those that he surrounds himself with - being far more partisan ideologues than he lets on.

This becomes apparent when the rhetoric slips along the fringes. Whether it is Foreign Affairs Minister Baird comparing Iran to Nazi Germany, whether it is Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver calling Northern Gateway opponents "radicals" or whether it is Immigration Minister Jason Kenney unilaterally banning the Niqab in citizenship ceremonies, these slips keep coming. And they are slips that show the Harper government to be far more partisan than they would like us to think of them as.

There is still hope:
I have great hope for Iran. I have hope for the Green movement in Iran, for the secular youth. We have seen in the Arab spring how decades old authoritarian dictators that were once thought untoppleable - many backed by the West - were indeed toppled. I believe that with engagement and diplomacy that takes a wider perspective than just the nuclear lens, Iran can achieve genuine liberalization that benefits them and us. But inflammatory rhetoric accomplishes nothing; we can be, and must be, far above that. We have to be honest brokers - following in that proud Canadian tradition - and not, as Baird ironically puts it, operate "under the false pretense of being an honest broker".

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