Remarks by CIGI Distinguished Fellow Paul Heinbecker presented at a  conference sponsored by the National Council on Canada-Arab Relations, November 26-27, 2011 in Gatineau. He argues that "Canadians who oppose a preventive attack on Iran and who want  a sound Middle East policy to respond to the Arab Awakening should speak up now."

Mr. Comerford, Ladies and Gentlemen, David, thank you for inviting me to this very timely conference. 

You have asked me to speak this morning on “Canada and the Arab World: Recent Developments and Future Prospects.”

That would have been a difficult assignment a year ago, given the diversity of the region, and the “light switch” character of the policies of the Canadian government. Today it is close to “mission impossible”. So, I am going to focus on Canadian foreign policy towards the region. And the need for an over-arching strategy.

The bottom has fallen out of the Arab autocrats’ world. Ben Ali is gone. Mubarak is gone. Gaddafi is gone and is not coming back. Saleh is going. And not too far behind them, I hope, will be Assad. Meanwhile, the Arab kingdoms and sheikdoms face the choice of reforming or following the autocrats into oblivion.

We are witnessing Revolution 2.0-- or perhaps 3.0. Direct broadcast satellite television means that the state monopoly on information is over. Last winter, the official Egyptian television coverage of the events in Tahrir square was shown in real time to be ludicrously false by ”On TV”, Al Arabiya  and Al Jazeera and others. In demonstrations in the city squares right across Egypt and the Middle East, young people, primarily, but not so young people as well, of every class and religion and sect, used their BlackBerrys and mobile phones, as well as Facebook and Twitter, to organize and mobilize. And they did so in such numbers that they overwhelmed the authorities’ ability and disposition to control them. More important than the means, however, has been the end.

The transformation we are witnessing in the Arab world is potentially every bit as significant as the end of colonialism was in the Fifties or the collapse of communism was in the Eighties.

In these circumstances, what should Canada do?

To answer this question, I will discuss three separate but related issues.

First, Canada’s relationship with the region, and the need for a strategy and coherence. Second, as part of a coherent policy, Canada’s approach to the Palestinian-Israeli issue, which will have a direct and indirect bearing on Canada’s overall standing in  the region. And, third, Canada’s response to the suspected Iranian nuclear weapon program which, depending on what we do, could advance  Canada’s purposes in the Middle East or render them moot.

What Should Canada Do?

Most basically, we should get off the sidelines and get onto the right side of history. We should engage with our Arab friends and partners to try to influence the outcome, rather than to wait and see what happens.

While not ignoring the security  interests of the Israelis, we should not look at the “Awakening” primarily through the prism of Israeli security. Hundreds of millions of Arabs are throwing off the dead hands of autocracy and privilege. We will be remembered for what we do to help them—and we will also be remembered if we don’t help them.

Democracy had to start sometime in the Middle East. It has started now, and the Harper Government should embrace it, not just sit in judgment of it. It is in Canada’s interest that “the Awakening” continue and that it open the way to democratic government, in Egypt above all but in the other Arab states, as well. The Harper government should develop a strategy towards the Middle East that re-sets Canada’s relations with the countries of the region. The central organizing principle of that strategy should be to support the democratizing impulse in each country. Support, not direct.  Framing an effective strategy starts with the Canadian government acknowledging how important this relationship is to the hundreds of thousands of Canadians of Arab descent, to the many thousands of other Canadians whose livelihoods are affected by the business done with the region and to all Canadians whose security is affected by what happens there.

As just one piece of evidence to corroborate the significance of the region to Canada, merchandise trade between Canada and the Gulf Cooperation Council states alone is greater than merchandise trade with India, a rising star that is very high on our list of priorities.

All Canadians have a stake in the success of “the Arab Awakening.” The more democratic, the more pluralistic, the more representative, the more responsible, the more modern the governments in the region become, the better for all concerned, including Canada.

That outcome is admittedly more of an aspiration than an accomplishment, and it will remain so for some time to come. Which is not surprising: Canadian democracy has been three centuries in the making.

The roots of Canadian democracy go all the way back to the Magna Carta. Autocracy, as some wag said, is about straight roads. But democracy is about curves, switch-backs, zig-zags, detours and even dead-ends. So we need to be patient and keep a sense of perspective as the Arabs build their own versions of democracy. We even need to remember that attempts at democracy have failed before, sometimes catastrophically, notably in Nazi Germany and Communist Russia. But, we need also to remember that democracy has succeeded more than it has failed — 115 member of the 193 countries of the UN have been classed as democracies by Freedom House, the US democracy NGO.

Turkey is one of those democracies, and its reconciliation of  Islamic religious observance and modern secular governance may hold some lessons for Arab  democrats. Further, while we are right to be wary of Islamism, we should remember that all Islamists are not the same;  the term covers a considerable spectrum of belief from the merely observant to the fanatical.

We should also be wary of Christianism, which itself covers a range of beliefs. At their extremes, neither phenomenon is generous and tolerant and both distort and undermine democracy. In these circumstances, what the international community must not do, and what Canada must not do, is to confuse stagnation and stability.

We have done that for sixty years, and it has produced societies susceptible to religious  extremism, as the socially disenfranchised grasp  at hope and dignity whoever seems to promise them. Confusing stagnation and stability has also generated political pressure sufficient to blow the lids off Arab governments. Prime Minister Netanyahu might prefer otherwise, as he is reported to have said a couple of days ago, but the status quo ante was not sustainable and, in my view at least, it is not retrievable, either.

A Canadian strategy should incorporate all the foreign policy instruments--diplomacy, military, trade and  investment, and aid — as well as perspective and patience. Militarily, the Canadian government has acquitted itself well in Libya, and in doing so has reinforced the UN’s new norm, the Responsibility to Protect, itself a made-in-Canada idea. For all the debate about NATO exceeding its UN mandate in Libya, failure to remove Gaddafi would have been a much worse outcome. What to do about Syria is the new burning question, literally.

In my judgment, military intervention to stop the slaughter there, while presenting a much more complex and difficult challenge than was the case in Libya, must remain an option if Assad continues to use the army to slaughter his own people. The job of assisting the Arab peoples towards democracy has scarcely begun.

The West, including Canada, has so far been more about promise than about performance. At Deauville this Spring, the G8 promised in excess of $20 billion. So far, it has delivered few of the goods. Beyond money, a Canadian strategy would include working with the Canadian  business community to determine how to facilitate  business investment in the region. It would also promote trade, including by encouraging imports into Canada.

Both would help create the jobs and the dignity that are in such short supply for the youth of the Arab world. A Canadian strategy would also support the development of democratic institutions, including political parties, and provide advice on the writing of the constitution. It would support human rights, especially women’s rights, and would invest in education, especially girls’ education,  and in educational exchanges.

Canada, the Palestine deadlock and the Arab Awakening

For a new Canadian strategy to be effective, the government’s policies will have to be to be coherent. The Arab Awakening has been fundamentally about rebelling against intolerable domestic conditions in Arab countries, especially about injustice and indignity and lack of economic prospects.

But it is evident that that sense of injustice, indignity and inequity extends as well to include the plight of the Palestinians. And that more representative Arab governments are going to have to be more responsive to public opinion on this score than the autocrats were. An effective Canadian strategy, one that delivers dividends in the region and for Canada, will have to take that new reality into account including regarding the Palestinian-Israeli deadlock.

At the UN in September, Foreign Minister Baird renewed Canada’s commitment to the founding principles of the United Nations, including the principle of equal rights and self-determination of peoples the maintenance of international law and the fulfillment of the obligations inherent in the Charter. He underlined that it is the duty of member states to “pull [those principles] from the printed page, to breathe life into them, and to practice them every day.” Mr. Baird stressed that Canada stands for “what is principled and just, regardless of whether it is popular, or convenient, or expedient...Canada does not just ‘go along in order to get along’.”

To avoid charges of hypocrisy and double standards, the government will need to approach the issues raised by the Palestine and Israel conflict in the same principled way. To give practical effect to Mr. Baird’s self-assessment, and to align its policies with these principles, what should the government do?

In the first place, we should continue to reaffirm the fundamentals of Canadian policy, including maintaining our strong support for Israel’s right to exist, to live in peace and security with its neighbours and to defend itself within the limits of the law.

We should also make clear our strong support for the establishment of a viable and secure Palestinian state, whose borders should be based on the 1967 lines with mutually agreed land swaps, and a just solution to the Palestinian refugee issue.     

Second, we should start exercising our judgment on developments and policies again, and let the chips fall where they may. This means neither supporting Israel right-or-wrong nor Palestine right-or-wrong, nor presuming that either Israel or Palestine can do no wrong. We should be fair-minded and clear-spoken on human rights violations by both sides.

This means giving neither democratic governments nor sentimental underdogs a general dispensation from scrutiny. History is replete with examples of resistance movements and democracies violating human rights laws and norms. The excesses of Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib, and Bagram, to say nothing of the “rendition” of Canadians to torture abroad, were perpetrated by the self-proclaimed world’s greatest democracy. Loyalty to a friend, even a democratic friend, may be a policy; it is not a principle.

Third, we should anchor our positions in international law, including international humanitarian law. At times, our doing so would not be welcomed by one party to the conflict or the other, much less by their respective supporters in Canada. Nevertheless, the law is a rock on which to stand in the turbulent flow of Middle East politics. Basing our judgments on the law would also be the surest way to remain “principled and just,” in practice, as well as in rhetoric. At the same time, we should remind ourselves that innocent people on both sides are bearing the brunt of this confrontation; basic human compassion and empathy should also inform our policy judgments.

Fourth, out of considerations of fairness and to shield Canadian policy from charges of double standards and hypocrisy, the government should explain to Canadians why it supports the Netanyahu government reflexively, on this issue. In particular, it should explain its rationale  for condemning as unilateral the Palestinian approach to the UN to achieve recognition as a state, while it turns a blind eye to Israel’s building of settlements, its transfer of population into occupied territory, its annexation of East Jerusalem, and its erection of a security barrier on Palestinian land, all of which are unilateral-- and illegal. Ignorance of the law is not an excuse.

Fifth, Canadian governments should never, ever, play domestic political games with this volatile issue. The public peace in our country is not a gift bestowed on us by a favourable Providence but the product of decades of fair and circumspect policies by successive governments. Only the foolhardy presume its indestructibility.

Canada, Iran, Israel and the Arab Awakening

The UN’s International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has issued a report that provides considerable circumstantial evidence that Iran is developing a nuclear weapon capability.

In actions reminiscent of the lead-up to the 2003 invasion of Iraq, some observers are reacting to the report by inserting exclamation points where question marks would be more appropriate, as was the case in the build-up to the US attack on Iraq.

Iran does not yet have a nuclear weapon. It is not clear whether the Iranians intend now to cross the nuclear weapon threshold, or rather to position themselves to do so relatively quickly after they might eventually decide to go nuclear. Either way, the Iranian effort does raise potentially grave, albeit differentiated, issues for the international community, including Canada.

Israeli newspapers (Haaretz, Yedioth Ahronoth , others) have been reporting efforts by Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu and Defence Minister Ehud Barak to muster support among senior ministers for an attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities. Minister Barak told CNN November 20 that if the Iranian nuclear program were not stopped in the next months, not years, the growing redundancies in Iranian facilities would render an attack ineffectual.

Beyond the dangers that Iran presented to Israel, Barak asserted that a nuclear-armed Iran would use its nuclear umbrella to intimidate Gulf countries and to sponsor terror with impunity. He also warned of Iran’s triggering of a Middle East nuclear arms race involving Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Egypt, undermining the nuclear Non-Proliferation treaty, a major Canadian interest. 

Meanwhile, the Israeli people and cabinet appear to remain divided on the wisdom and necessity of an attack on Iran, as apparently are Israeli officials. Meir Dagan, the recently retired head of Mossad, Israel’s external spy agency, warned that an attack against Iran was “the stupidest idea [he’d] ever heard.” US Secretary of Defence Leon Panetta has been publicly at pains to warn the Israelis against unilateral action.

In a recent visit to Israel, according to the Sunday Telegraph of November 13, Panetta also privately, asked Israel for a guarantee that it would not carry out a unilateral military strike against Iran without Washington's clearance. The Telegraph reported, citing sources on both sides, that he did not get such a guarantee. At a security conference in Halifax last weekend, Panetta warned again publicly that a military strike could have severe economic consequences around the world. He repeated the US administration’s preference to focus on sanctions to curb Iran's suspected nuclear weapons ambitions. The US, the UK and Canada imposed further sanctions on Monday, and the Europeans are expected to follow suit. Assuming that  sanctions will not in the near term stop Iran from pursuing a nuclear weapons option, nonetheless, the essential question remains: which is worse, an Iranian Bomb or the bombing of Iran?

In the former case,  deterrence would be relied on to prevent the bomb’s use, as has been,  and is being, done regarding the US, Russia, China, the UK, France, India, Pakistan, North Korea and Israel. In the latter case, Iran would be attacked by Israel or the US or both, or possibly by a coalition including Canada, to destroy its nuclear program or at least delay its nuclear breakthrough.

An attack on Iran would likely not be the simple affair that the Israeli raid was on a suspected Syrian nuclear facility in the summer of 2007. It would likely escalate to war. Unless such an attack were authorized by the UN Security Council, a distant prospect at best, and even if it were, an attack would near certainly plunge the Middle East into war, cost the lives of countless innocent, roil western relations with the Muslim world, refuel Islamist extremism around the world, damage the international oil market and boost oil prices, and weaken the international economy when it is already in a precarious state.

Such an attack could even derail the Awakening, if consequent fighting enabled Arab leaders to call on protesters to rally round the flag in a moment of national need. Such an attack, if Canada supported it or participated in it, would put major Canadian strategic interests at risk.

What is Canada’s strongly pro-Israel government planning to do? On Question Period last weekend, when talking of Syria, National Defence Minister Peter Mackay recalled the centrality of the UN Security Council to intervention. He has also said that the Libya template cannot simply be transposed to the Syrian or Iranian cases. As regards Iran, he has described the military option as “the least preferable.” This past week, Foreign Minister Baird, for his part, was clear that Canada would act but less clear about how, saying “Canada will continue to work with its like-minded allies to take the necessary action for Iran to abandon its nuclear program. It is not a question of if, but to what extent, we will act in response to this report.” Prime Minister Harper has repeatedly portrayed Israel as an ally, and the two countries are reported to be working on some sort of mutual defence agreement.

In my judgment, the government should think long and hard about involving itself in any Israeli or American attack on Iran.The world has not used military force to stop the nuclear programmes of other, existing nuclear states. The onus is on those who would attack Iran to demonstrate convincingly why it is necessary this time. Were Canada to support or participate in an unauthorized, preventive, attack on Iran, the impact on our standing in the Middle East and beyond would be all too predictable, and negative . 

The Canadian government needs to counsel its friends contemplating military action to take into account Churchill’s observation that “the statesman who yields to war fever must realize that once the signal is given, he is no longer the master of policy but the slave of unforeseeable and uncontrollable events.” More broadly, and at the same time, Canada needs to develop a strategy to support the Arab Awakening, one of the most promising developments of our times. Canada also needs to adopt policies on the Palestine-Israel deadlock that are fair-minded and constructive, and that restore our standing in the Middle East.  

Canadians who oppose a preventive attack on Iran and who want  a sound Middle East policy to respond to the Arab Awakening should speak up now.

Thank you.

  • Paul Heinbecker

    With a distinguished career in Canadian diplomacy — including posts as ambassador to Germany, permanent representative to the United Nations (UN) and adviser to various prime ministers, Paul Heinbecker is one of Canada’s most experienced commentators on foreign policy and international governance. With CIGI since 2004, Paul is also the director of the Centre for Global Relations at Wilfrid Laurier University.