Obama and Harper: very different worldviews

Gil Troy

U.S. President Barack Obama’s all-out fight to preserve his nuclear deal with Iran highlights the contrast between the American administration and Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s government.

Obama wants to be remembered for opening new channels to Iran; Harper will be remembered for closing Canada’s Iranian Embassy in 2012. Obama is gambling that Iran’s actions will improve, trusting the diplomats’ sweet reassurances despite the mullahs’ harsh calls for “death to America” at home; Harper is judging Iran by its aggressive actions and ugly words, refusing to be snookered. Ultimately, the future will tell which leader is correct – but, judging by history, the smart money is on Harper’s wariness rather than Obama’s naiveté.

These clashing attitudes toward Iran reflect deeper divisions. Both the president and the prime minister are ideologues with particular worldviews shaping their foreign policy. And both are trailblazing new paths for their respective nations that depart dramatically from their predecessors’ approaches.

Harper’s policy repudiates Jean Chretien, a Liberal prime minister who disdained America and Israel. Again and again, Chretien made it clear that Canada’s standing in the United Nations was more important than standing on principle. As Harper himself has said, “Gone are the days when Canadian foreign policy was about nothing more than trying to be liked by every dictator with a vote at the UN.”

This strategy has shaped Harper’s Israel policy as well. As he has explained: “We have long refused to be neutral in supporting Israel’s right to defend itself against the violent jihadists who have threatened her for every single day of her 67-year existence.” Harper has preserved his principles, even when Canadian elites and foreign critics have mocked him. He understands that Islamism does not “just” threaten democratic Israel, but freedom-loving people worldwide. And he correctly identifies Iran as a centre of jihadist revolution, fomenting terrorism and violence through proxies like Hezbollah and Hamas. It is hard to imagine that even if Harper had been willing to negotiate with Iran’s mullahs, he would have stayed at the table while Iranian thugs yelled “death to Canada,” or even “only” “death to America,” Canada’s closest friend.

By contrast, in a low moment in the history of democracies, Obama kept negotiating and kept broadcasting his intense desire for an agreement with Iran, even as Iranian mobs threatened America and Israel. Just as Harper is the un-Chretien, Obama is the un-Bush. Obama’s ideological reorientation is even more sweeping. Beyond critiquing George W. Bush’s war on terror along with his invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan, Obama has made it clear that he regrets much of America’s modern foreign policy. Obama accepts much of the Third World and far left critique of American power as often being bullying.

Obama’s outreach to Iran is central to what he called in his 2009 Cairo speech America’s “new beginning” with the “Muslim world.” In his controversial, honest, insightful new book, Ally, Israel’s former ambassador Michael Oren emphasizes how important this breakthrough is to Obama, how willing he has been to downgrade relations with Israel to achieve it, and just how erroneous it is to view the “Muslim world” as one entity. Moreover, a more honest history of America’s relations with Islam – and with the Third World – would note how frequently the United States has defended Third Worlders, including Muslims, disproving this insulting, inaccurate caricature of America as an imperialist or hostile western force until Obama came to save us all.

Still, Barack Obama is America’s president, and Stephen Harper is Canada’s prime minister. That means that Obama gets to set the agenda and broker the nuclear deal, while Harper, no matter how right he may be, no matter how much tougher he would have been at the table, is forced to watch from the sidelines. Let’s hope for the best.