John Baird’s Middle East Legacy

This is one of a series of CIPS Blog posts examining the legacy of John Baird as Canada’s foreign minister. See also the posts by Daniel Livermore, David Petrasek, Colin Robertson and Ferry de Kerckhove.

In commenting on John Baird’s legacy as foreign minister, one must recognize that Baird has no real legacy; like all ministers in this government, he is an implementer of its agenda. In this he has been effective. But this is not the same as a legacy of one’s own.

Perhaps instead of commenting on Baird’s legacy in the Middle East, we should talk of Tory policy in the region, which he implemented. It is far from certain whether that policy actually serves Canada’s interests, if those interests are defined in classical terms: the promotion of Canadian security at home and abroad; being a useful ally to our most critical security and trading partners; and serving Canada’s economic interests.

On the critical issues of Israel and Iran, he enthusiastically implemented a policy which has not served Canada’s interests.

Readers will note that the V-word (values) is missing from this definition. Values are something Baird made much of in his speeches on the region — usually in the context of taking pride in being virtually alone in blindly supporting Israel. But the idea that Baird can say he ran a values-based policy is problematic in that he did so selectively. Values such as freedom of speech and of religion, for example, were pursued by him enthusiastically in the context of criticizing countries the Tories do not like (Iran, Syria and others), but largely ignored in the context of those they do (Israel, Saudi Arabia and others).

So maybe we should leave values out of our review of Baird’s record — except to say that they were selectively applied. Selective values make for a troubling legacy.

What then were the major Middle East accomplishments of his tenure? In terms of the public face of Tory diplomacy in the region, first and foremost is an uncritical support of Israel—more specifically, an uncritical support of the Israeli right. It is often forgotten that Netanyahu’s government is not Israel; it is an Israeli government. But it is held in most esteem by the Tory political base in Canada. Mr. Baird’s unequivocal, frequent and loud support of it has done very well for the Tories in Canada.

Has it served Canada’s core interests, as defined above, in the region? Not really. Though Canada’s relative lack of influence shields us from the consequences of Baird’s rhetoric, the Tory approach may have opened us up to greater chances of being attacked by terrorists than the more even-handed approach of previous governments which he dismissed.

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Baird’s policies on Israel certainly did little in terms of making Canada a useful partner to our key allies, and may have increased the chill in relations with the Obama administration. At a time when the U.S. and Europe were trying to put pressure on the Netanyahu government to stop building settlements (since when is annexing the territory of another people an expression of the values Canada would want to be associated with?) and re-engage with the peace process, Canada’s uncritical support may have encouraged the Israeli hard-line. And Canada’s traditional role of quietly helping to foster dialogue between the disputants–something our allies appreciated even if it rarely got headlines—was abandoned and castigated by Baird.

It is difficult to say whether Tory policies on Israel had a significant impact on our economic relations with the wider region; these relations are very modest to begin with, and many of the region’s Arab states have been going through such upheaval that their economies have shrunk.

Another Tory initiative in the Middle East has been relentless opposition to the government of Iran. While previous Canadian governments disliked Iran, they maintained relations with it; not so the Harper government. As its chief spokesman, Baird allowed his rhetorical abilities to reach new heights when speaking on the subject. The extraordinary step of cutting diplomatic relations has deprived Canada of an important listening post with a difficult but critical regional player. A University of Toronto project to provide an on-line platform for regime opponents in and outside of Iran has been supported; yet projects to do the same for opposition groups in countries the Tories like, but which have even worse human rights records, is nowhere to be seen. (Again, the selective values problem). But has any of it had an impact on the situation in Iran? Not really.


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On Iran, then, Tory policy has not met the criteria for serving the national interest. By refusing to support multilateral talks aimed at corralling Iran’s nuclear ambitions—the only way these ambitions will ever be dealt with—Canada has not advanced its core regional objectives. Nor has it proven to be a useful ally to the U.S. and Europe, who are seeking ways to deal with the situation diplomatically. Economically, this stance may have damaged prospects for Canadian business to secure lucrative contracts should international sanctions ever be lifted and the Iranian economy be allowed to reach its potential. Perhaps this would have been worthwhile had Canada’s stance had any discernable impact, but it has not—except, once again, on the government’s standing with key constituencies in Canada.

There are some areas where Canada acted more positively under Baird’s stewardship. Canada has played a modest but creditable role in the coalition military response to ISIS in Iraq. A spat over landing rights for Emirates airlines has been quietly smoothed over. A significant arms deal has been landed with Saudi Arabia (though the values issue does raise its head here). Canada has supported laudable initiatives on women’s rights and other such issues in the region—though it has failed to work through the multilateral institutions that can most effectively deliver them.

But these are not the decisive aspects of Baird’s tenure with respect to the Middle East. On the critical issues of Israel and Iran, he enthusiastically implemented a policy which has not served Canada’s interests—though it did go down well with his bosses’ political base at home. Not a bad day’s work for a politician eager to please his boss, perhaps, but not much of a legacy for a foreign minister.

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