Stephen Harper’s Unprincipled and Inconsistent Foreign Policy

Over a year ago, as chaos erupted in Ukraine, Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper was one of the first voices to join the choir of hyperbole in the refrain that Putin’s invasion of Crimea was analogous to Hitler’s invasion of the Sudetenland. His – at the time – Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird said “"The Sudetenland had a majority of Germans. That
gave Germany no right to do this in the late 1930’s." He added that "It’s
hard not to" make the comparison. Prime Minister Harper agreed with the analogy: "What we’ve seen is the decision of a major power to effectively invade and occupy a neighboring country based on some kind of extraterritorial claim of jurisdiction over ethnic minorities. We haven’t seen this kind of behavior since the Second World War."

Opposing the right of any country to invade the sovereign territory of another country, Harper vociferously opposed Putin and the eastern opposition and became one of the first to recognize Ukraine’s unelected anti-Russian government. He was the first G7 leader to travel to Ukraine after the change in government.

But the events in Ukraine were not a Russian invasion, but events set in motion by NATO encroachment on Russia’s borders – absorbing twelve allies of the former Soviet Union since 1999, despite the promise made to Gorbachev by George H.W. Bush that if Germany reunified, NATO would move no further towards Russia’s borders – culminating in a western backed coup in the heart of Russia’s “near abroad”. Harper was not opposing hostile invasion: he was supporting it.

Victor Yanukovych was elected in 2010 in elections declared fair by international observers. The West, however, would force him into a situation that made the crisis inevitable.

The U.S and the E.U. forced Yanukovych to choose between the economic packages offered by Russia and the European Union. The Russians didn’t force the choice. Putin offered Yanukovych the option of accepting a collaboration between the E.U., the U.S., and Russia. But, according to Stephen Cohen, Professor Emeritus of Russian Studies at Princeton, "it was the European Union, backed by Washington, that said in November to the democratically elected President of a profoundly divided country, Ukraine, ‘You must choose between Europe and Russia’."

Having said that Yanukovych must choose one or the other, the West then made it impossible for him to choose the West. Investigative journalist Robert Parry reported that the E.U. was "demanding substantial economic ‘reforms,’ including an austerity plan dictated by the International Monetary Fund." Russia, however, offered $15 billion in loans without such demands.

As important as, but not as well reported as, the austerity measures, Cohen adds that the E.U. proposal also "included ‘security policy’ provisions . . . that would apparently subordinate Ukraine to NATO." The provisions compelled Ukraine to "adhere to Europe’s ‘military and security’ policies."

In effect, the West forced Yanukovych to choose Russia, thus setting the stage for the violent protests in the street. Then the State Department help coax the protest into a coup. Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs Victoria Nuland was caught plotting the outcome of the coup, telling the American ambassador in Kiev, Geoffrey Pyatt, who the Americans wanted to become the new leader of Ukraine. Even more blatantly, Pyatt also refers to the West needing to "midwife this thing," a metaphorical admission of America’s role in the coup. At one point, Nuland even seems to say that Vice President Joe Biden, himself, would be willing to do the midwifery.

Once in power, the coup government would quickly seek to ally itself with the patrons who helped place it in power. In August 2014, Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk – the very man Victoria Nuland was caught naming as America’s choice to replace Yanukovych – announced that his cabinet had approved a bill putting an end to Ukraine’s nonaligned status that would pave the way for “resumption of Ukraine’s course for NATO membership.”

Harper’s foreign policy in Ukraine was uninformed and unprincipled. And in order to defend Ukraine from invasion, Harper announced in April of this year that Canada would send roughly two-hundred troops to Ukraine, where they will remain until March 2017, to help develop and train Ukrainian forces.

Harper’s Ukrainian policy is not only unprincipled and uninformed, it is also inconsistent: in two ways.

The first is that, though Harper has built a brand on unconditional support for Israel, the coup government in Ukraine is saturated with neo-Nazis who occupy several important portfolios, as has finally now been well reported. Israel’s own right wing paper, the Jerusalem Post recently published an article titled “Putin says Ukraine being overrun by fascists – and he may be right.” In the article, writer Josh Cohen says that “Ukraine’s parliament, the Supreme Rada, passed a draft law last month honoring organizations involved in mass ethnic cleansing during World War Two.” He says that the draft law honors two groups that “helped the Nazis carry out the Holocaust.”

Harper’s cheerleading for a government that includes neo-Nazis and honors organizations who “helped the Nazis carry out the holocaust” is jarringly inconsistent with his professed support for Israel. Harper has adopted two contradictory policies because they are not based on principle.

Harper’s Ukrainian policy is also inconsistent because it is based on the principle that invasion is unjustified and illegal. But Harper has been complicit in recent invasions elsewhere.

When Canada sent troops to Iraq to fight the Islamic State, it was part of a coalition that was responding to an invitation from Iraq’s government. But when Canada metastasized the mission into Syria, authorizing airstrikes, it was flying missions in a sovereign nation who had not invited it. Harper, while insisting on the principle of the illegality of entering another country uninvited in Ukraine, was entering another country uninvited in Syria. Harper was simultaneously sending troops into Ukraine on the principle that invading a sovereign nation is contrary to international law and invading a sovereign nation by sending troops into Syria. Harper’s policy is inconsistent because it is not based on principle. He is defending a principle in one country that he is simultaneously violating in another.

Harper’s policy in Syria, like his policy in Ukraine, is also inconsistent with his policy of support for Israel. Because in the struggle in Syria, Israel is on the side of the Salafist Islamic extremists.

In September 2013, Michael Oren, the Israeli Ambassador to the U.S. said, “We always wanted Bashar Assad to go, we always preferred the bad guys who weren’t backed by Iran to the bad guys who were backed by Iran.” Oren told the Jerusalem Post that “This was the case . . . even if the other ‘bad guys’ were affiliated with al-Qaeda.” Nearly a year later, in June 2014, Oren would repeat Israel’s position of preferring ISIS and al-Nusra over Assad: “From Israel’s perspective, if there’s got to be an evil that’s got to prevail, let the Sunni evil prevail.”

Israel has gone on to establish, in the words of Robert Parry “what amounted to a nonaggression pact” with al-Qaeda’s official affiliate in Syria, Jabhat al-Nusra, and provided medical care for its wounded fighters.

And Israel has gone beyond not fighting against the Islamic extremists: on at least two occasions it has fought for them. Iran and Hezbollah have provided some of the most important forces against the Islamic State and al-Nusra. But in January, an Israeli military helicopter crossed into Syrian territory and killed five Hezbollah fighters and Iranian General Mohammed Allahdadi. The New York Times reports that the killed Hezbollah fighters were key figures in the operations against ISIS, including Mohammed Issa, a leading commander of the anti-ISIS operation. General Allahdadi had been “advising Syria on how to fight terrorism.” The Israeli attack on forces that were fighting ISIS is Syria has been called a serious blow to the war against ISIS.

Then in April, the Israeli Air Force attacked Hezbollah and Syrian bases near the Syria-Lebanon border and a Hezbollah convoy.

So, as in Ukraine, Harper’s Syria policy conflicts with his Israel policy. Harper and Netanyahu are fighting on opposite sides of the Syrian war.

The inconsistency of Harper’s foreign policy is exposed again in Yemen. As in Syria, Harper’s position is inconsistent with his position in Ukraine. When it comes to Yemen, Harper supports invasion. Though Canada is not fighting in Yemen, it is officially in support of those who are. According to Rob Nicholson, Canada’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, “Canada supports the military action by Saudi Arabia and its Gulf Cooperation Council [GCC] partners and others to defend Saudi Arabia’s border and to protect Yemen’s recognized government at the request of the Yemeni president.”

But, as Gareth Porter has pointed out, Yemen is not a proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran, but “a straightforward external military aggression”: an external military aggression that Canada supports.

As for “Yemen’s recognized government,” General Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi was the only candidate whose name was penned on the ballot, and the ink is still all over America’s hands. America, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf Cooperation Council may recognize Hadi as the President of Yemen, but the Yemenis don’t. As professor of politics and Chair of Middle Eastern Studies at the University of San Francisco Stephen Zunes has explained, after millions of Yemenis took to the streets and forced U.S. backed dictator Ali Abdulah Saleh from seat of power he had occupied for three and a half decades, the Saudis, the Gulf Cooperation Council and the Americans simply installed General Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi, Saleh’s Vice President, as President: hardly what the Yemenis had intended. Intending a democratic revolution, they had established a National Council to form a provisional government until genuine elections could finally be held. The Americans and Saudis simply went around the Council and the public will and transferred power to the Vice President of Saleh’s dictatorial and repressive regime.

But not only is Canada supporting an invasion of Yemen to prop up a government forced on the Yemenis from outside, it is doing so to the benefit of al-Qaeda. As the Saudis and their allies wage war on the Houthi with American support, al-Qaeda’s influence grows because the Houthi were the most successful opposition force to al-Qaeda in Yemen. By sidelining the Houthi, the invasion advances the goals of al-Qaeda.

This conflict in foreign policy interests is no trivial one. When asked whether Canada’s troops will spread beyond Iraq and Syria around the world as jihadi groups around the world swear allegiance to al-Qaeda, Harper’s government has consistently drawn the line at fighting al-Qaeda core. But al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), the Yemeni affiliate of al-Qaeda, is one of just five core al-Qaeda official affiliates in the world. And of the official affiliates, according to Jessica Stern and J.M. Berger, experts on al-Qaeda and the Islamic State and authors of ISIS: the State of Terror, AQAP is the most directly controlled by al-Qaeda Central. So Canada’s policy in Yemen is inconsistent with its policy of opposing al-Qaeda.

A second official al-Qaeda affiliate is Jabhat al-Nusra, the official al-Qaeda affiliate in Syria. So, supporting the invasion of Yemen is inconsistent with Canada’s policy in Syria: Canada is opposing one al-Qaeda affiliate in Syria while abetting one of at least equal centrality in Yemen.

Harper’s policy on invading sovereign countries is inconsistent: he opposes invasion in some countries and participates in it in others. His policy of consistent support for Israel is far more inconsistent than he sells it as: his interests are not aligned with Israel’s in Ukraine or Syria. And his policy on al-Qaeda is inconsistent: he battles it in Syria and abets it in Yemen. Harper’s foreign policy is not based on principle, and because it is unprincipled, it is inconsistent.

Ted Snider has a graduate degree in philosophy and writes on analyzing patterns in U.S. foreign policy and history.