Pragmatic, dirty choices
Franklin Roosevelt famously replied to his secretary of state’s assessment of the Nicaraguan strongman Anastasio Somoza Debayle – “Somoza’s a bastard!” – with the rejoinder “Yes, but he’s our bastard.”
Politics makes strange bedfellows. International relations perhaps even more so. The world today is an intricate puzzle of interlocking and disparate pieces. It was, frankly, cleaner and clearer in the days of FDR, when there was just “us” and “them.” Let it not be overlooked though, that when “them” meant the Nazis, Stalin was among those counted as “us.” Stalin was evil, but he helped defeat Nazism. Is the Western world soiled by our partnership with him? Certainly. Would we choose an alternative history had we the chance? What alternative?
The Liberal government of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau inherited from the Conservative government of Stephen Harper (among other things) a hot potato in the form of an arms deal with Saudi Arabia.
The previous Conservative government facilitated what is the largest single Canadian manufacturing-export deal ever. General Dynamics Land Systems of London, Ont., will provide light armored vehicles to the Saudi military – a military that helped crush Arab Spring-related uprisings in neighboring Bahrain and in the Shiite areas of eastern Saudi Arabia. The Saudis are also accused of indiscriminate killings in Yemen, where they are fighting Iran-backed Islamists.
It deserves to be said that Saudi Arabia relies on trade with customers like Canada because, despite being the world’s second largest oil-producing nation, the Saudis have failed to parlay that windfall into anything lasting. Canada still exports too many raw materials that could be processed at home and sold abroad at added value but, compared with Saudi Arabia, we are the model of a diversified economy. Since the Saudi oil boom began, the country has invested nearly nothing in anything else, unless exporting Wahhabism is a tertiary industry, which, actually, it seems to be.
Famous for publicly scything off the heads of political dissidents, adulterers and others who in the West would be described as next-door neighbors, Saudi Arabia is now pushing to step up executions of gay people because social media is “making too many homosexuals.”
Despite the cuckoo United Nations logic that says Israel is the world’s top human rights violator, Saudi Arabia is actually a perpetrator of some of the world’s most atrocious abuses of human rights, from the extreme (public beheadings) to the mundane (if you consider the right of women to drive cars or show their faces in public mundane).
Paraphrasing FDR, Saudi Arabia is a bastard.
This seems to be the general consensus and helps explain why the (comparatively) new Liberal government is awkward in its defence of the $15 billion arms deal.
Trudeau has said that annulling the deal would hurt Canada’s reputation and, indeed, a democratic government that reneges on the deals made by its predecessors is treading on ice. Future potential customers could well think twice if Canada had a reputation for backing out of major trade deals when the government changes.
On this side of the pragmatic divide, the deal also means about 3,000 jobs for 15 years in southwestern Ontario. So, the Liberal government has made little defence of its decision other than relying on economics and the decency of sticking with a signed deal.
In the National Post last week, Lawrence Solomon made a different case – a moral case – for sticking with the deal. He argues that Saudi Arabia, however repugnant its internal policies may be, is on the frontlines of combating terror in the form of ISIS, Iran and associated menaces and, therefore, deserves our support.
This is a comparatively novel idea. The Canadian government is taking refuge in excuses that the previous government made a deal, that Canadian jobs are at stake and that it has no option. A cartoon in the Toronto Star depicted Trudeau declaring, “My hands are tied” next to a blindfolded victim being led to his beheading, saying, “I know how you feel.”
Yet maybe Trudeau’s argument should have been more along the lines of Solomon’s. It is not impossible, using some creative logic as Solomon did, to make the case that selling military equipment to the Saudis is in our national interest. Do we wish it were not so? In an ideal world, all our allies would be righteous and all our enemies defeated. But, in a real world as fractured and dangerous as ours, choosing to support unsavory allies to defeat unsavory enemies may be something we need to learn to swallow.
The legendary FDR quote is held up as a model of foreign policy pragmatism, if not ruthlessness. Canadians – especially this lily-white new government – like to think of ourselves as above such sullying choices. If we want to have the impact in the world that Trudeau seemed to be referencing with his “Canada is back” sloganeering, he may have to admit that sometimes we need to get our hands dirty.
At the very least, tough choices should be confronted, not shirked. If it is immoral and wrong to sell military equipment to the Saudis, we shouldn’t do it, and damn the consequences. If it is justifiable on the grounds that the enemy of my enemy is my friend, then we should trade with the Saudis and make our moral case clearly. But we should not try to have it both ways, slapping down the Saudis with one hand while taking their money with the other.