Tim Harper: Liberal caution could cost Canadians a voice in the Middle East
The federal government stood virtually alone in its refusal to openly criticize U.S. President Donald Trump’s reckless move in the region, writes Tim Harper.
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In days of yore, there was a bit of an inside joke over at the Sussex Dr. headquarters of foreign affairs.
It revolved around the sliding scale of diplomatic words used in official releases regarding the severity of a particular foreign atrocity that should have Canada in high dudgeon.
It would start with an assurance that Canada was “closely monitoring the situation,’’ which could ramp up to “disappointment,’’ or “dismay,” or even “deep dismay.” Look out world if we veered into “deeply concerned,” before we “deplored” and the ultimate — “condemned.’’
This week, in the wake of Donald Trump’s reckless and dangerous declaration of Jerusalem as the Israeli capital, Justin Trudeau’s Liberals couldn’t even climb to the “disappointment” level.
In fact, both Trudeau and Global Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland managed to react without mentioning either the United States or Trump. And the reaction was late, as if the threading of this diplomatic needle stretched from the prime minister in China all the way back to the Sussex Dr. bunker.
Freeland delivered some uncharacteristic boilerplate about Canada being a friend to Israel and a friend to the Palestinian people.
“Canada’s longstanding position is that the status of Jerusalem can be resolved only as part of a general settlement of the Palestinian-Israeli dispute,” Freeland’s statement said.
In China, Trudeau was asked whether he would personally convey Canada’s objections to Trump, but he responded with a careful statement on Canadian policy without mentioning Trump’s name.
Canada will not follow Trump’s lead and move our embassy to Jerusalem, a notion last floated and rejected 38 years ago. It wasn’t even on the radar during the Stephen Harper years, when he professed his allegiance to Israel in neon lights.
Trump will take virtually no one with him in moving an embassy, unless you call Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte someone.
This could also be a Middle East version of his border wall and construction of a new embassy may not be underway by the next U.S. election.
It is, of course, highly symbolic and it removes the U.S. from playing any leadership role in trying to forge lasting peace in the region.
In a masterful speech in June, Freeland lamented the lack of U.S. leadership on the world stage (without mentioning Trump) and vowed Canada will chart a more sovereign approach on foreign policy.
We understand the Liberals don’t want to poke Trump with NAFTA talks circling the drain and it is tougher to take umbrage with a neighbour; easier if you are an ocean apart.
Trump is a gift for the Liberals because Trudeau, in actions, can be the anti-Trump without having to openly criticize the president.
But caution is one thing. Milquetoast is quite another.
Canada’s tepid response will be noticed and has the potential to do damage to this country’s influence in the region.
Compare Ottawa’s reaction with others around the world.
French President Emmanuel Macron phoned Trump to try to talk him out of the move, then called the “unilateral” decision “regrettable.’’
Angela Merkel specifically said Germany does not support the move.
British Prime Minister Theresa May, a weakened leader who has resisted pressure to rescind an invitation for Trump to visit the UK, publicly disagreed with the U.S. position and said she would talk to Trump about a decision she declared “unhelpful” to the Middle East peace process.
Even Pope Francis reacted with much greater alarm than the Liberal government.
Conservatives in Canada were silent on the issue, an indication that there is really no daylight between their Middle East position and the Liberals’ position.
They continued on their campaign to run Finance Minister Bill Morneau through the wringer.
It was left to New Democrats to try to push the Liberals on a reaction foreign affairs critic Hélène Laverdière called “spineless.” She accused the Liberals of abdicating leadership on the world stage.
In response, Heritage Minister Melanie Joly read the official Canadian position on the Middle East in both official languages.
NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh, who called the Trump move “divisive and counter-productive,’’ has shifted party policy.
Former leader Tom Mulcair brooked no criticism of Israel and cut NDP candidates loose for what were considered to be pro-Palestine comments.
Just as Trump was pandering to his evangelical base in Wednesday’s speech, domestic politics are behind the response of all three main Canadian parties.
But being careful not to alienate voters at home or criticize a capricious leader to the south, can also cost you your voice on the world stage.
Tim Harper writes on national affairs. email@example.com, Twitter: @nutgraf1