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Respect Squandered?


Yves Engler’s The Ugly Canadian:  Stephen Harper’s Foreign Policy is partly a follow-up to his excellent Canada and Israel: Building Apartheid.   Because I have problems with this second monograph, I want to stress that it’s well worth having simply for its meticulous and damning analysis of Canada’s how-low-can-you-go efforts in support of Israel on the international scene.  Engler’s researches move beyond Canada’s contemptible posturing at the UN to unearth such lesser-known disgraces as persecution of pro-Palestinian activists and enhanced tax breaks for Israeli settlements.   The book also contains an important account of Canada’s shameful behavior in Haiti.  Elsewhere, despite some valuable research, it suffers from a questionable premise and excursions into material much trickier than the Israel/Palestine conflict.   Let me try to explain.

The questionable premise, a handy narrative device, is that Harper has squandered the respect Canada once earned in foreign policy.   This builds on a deeply entrenched Canadian myth.   Canada is an attractive destination for immigrants from many countries, but this should not be confused with its stature as a player on the international stage.   There it was indeed respected by many smug diplomats and commentators in the white world, people who themselves suffered from an excess of self-respect.    It probably is still respected by this same bunch.    For most other observers, Canada has always been seen as America’s poodle – a creature that earned amused applause for its occasional outbursts of disobedience, but certainly not an object of respect.   That would have required more than occasional refusal to participate wholeheartedly in America’s most ludicrous idiocies, in Cuba, Vietnam  and Iraq.   If you try to imagine Canada sending substantial economic – let alone military – aid to these ‘enemies’ of the US, you’ll see what I mean.   You could also consider Canada’s pre-Harper engagement in America’s Afghan operations, especially after the initial 2001-2002 deployment.

As for difficulties with Engler’s material, they fall into two categories.   One has to do with opening a book on foreign policy with a critique of Canada’s energy and environmental policies under the heading of “Tar Sands Diplomacy”.   To cast these policies as foreign policy sleaze has two drawbacks.   First, it focuses on the diplomatic effects of a domestic political cause and, frankly, a defect of the democratic process.   Harper, like most democratic politicians, panders to his core electoral base, in this case  in the energy-producing provinces.   The policies can’t be understood by focusing on diplomatic maneuvers.   Second, Engler’s focus misses what makes this a more difficult issue.   It is not the Canadian government so much as the Canadian people who are the real obstacle to serious environmentalism, which would require some sacrifices.   But the foreign policy issues that occupy the rest of the book aren’t just pure foreign policy issues, they’re issues where Canada acts almost on a whim.    What’s so striking about Canadian policy on Israel, Iraq, Libya and Haiti is that Canada has nothing at stake.   Not so the foreign-policy effects of domestic environmental politics.

Engler’s other difficulties have to do with trying to make his subject-matter serve his ends before it’s in shape to do so.   When Engler discusses Israel, he draws on decades of well-established research and reporting, so that the facts are virtually beyond reasonable doubt.   What’s more, there is a rich vein of material that relates directly to Canadian foreign-policy decision-making, and Engler has a field day with that.   But when he discusses Libya, and by extension Canadian policy elsewhere in the contemporary Middle East, the ground shifts.    Here Engler does not and cannot deal with well-established facts.   To make his case against Harper, he must make the truth appear far more obvious than it really is.     He is conducting a polemic about events that are still unfolding, and cannot hope to speak with the authority he established when discussing the Israel/Palestine conflict.

Rather than trying to argue with Engler about the whole truth concerning Libya and Syria,  I’ll provide one example of the pitfalls of his approach.   Anxious to prove that Canada was wrong to oppose Gaddafi, he would like to show that virtually every widespread anti-Gaddafi story is at best ill-founded, at worst a deliberate fabrication.   One of these stories is that Gaddafi employed mercenaries.   Engler favors the idea that this is a falsehood prompted by racism towards the black Africans in Libya.  In support of this contention, he draws on a story very widespread on the internet, which has an investigator for Amnesty International, Donatella Rovera, stating that “…even the rebels have admitted that there were no mercenaries, almost all have been released and returned to their countries of origin.” (Engler, p.103)   And that indeed is a verbatim quote from every English-language account of the investigator’s statement that I could find online.   There is a small problem here and a big one.   The small one has to do with what the story seems to establish.  If the Libyan rebels decided that these Africans were not mercenaries, it doesn’t exactly bolster the hypothesis that all the claims about mercenaries were driven by racism.   In fact the new Libyan government did eventually convict some white Ukrainians of being mercenaries, and there is direct eye-witness testimony of hiring in Chad.   The larger problem is that the Amnesty’s claim that “there were no mercenaries” rests, not on an official report, but on an interview Rovera gave to an Austrian newspaper.   The interview has been mistranslated.   “There were no mercenaries” should read “These were no mercenaries”, i.e., the rebels stated that there were none among a particular batch of detainees.

These are the dangers of basing a foreign policy assessment on ‘findings’ before the verdict is in.

MICHAEL NEUMANN is a recently retired professor of philosophy.  He is the author of  What’s Left: Radical Politics and the Radical Psyche and The Case Against Israel. He can be reached and maintains a blog at


Michael Neumann is a professor of philosophy at a Canadian university.  He is the author of What’s Left: Radical Politics and the Radical Psyche and The Case Against Israel.  He also contributed the essay, “What is Anti-Semitism”, to CounterPunch’s book, The Politics of Anti-Semitism.  He can be reached at

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