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Canada's Moral Compass

By Pierre Atlas

MONTREAL-- Unlike the United States, Canada does not wield tremendous military or economic power, but it does have something in abundance that America has been losing of late: soft power. According to numerous surveys of world opinion, respect for the United States has dropped dramatically over the past seven years, and George W. Bush is the world's most reviled leader. But nobody hates Canada, and I doubt few people around the world, or even in Canada, really hate Prime Minister Stephen Harper.

I've been in Montreal for the past few days, attending the Middle East Studies Association annual conference and seeing the world from a Canadian perspective. Several recent news stories help illustrate important differences in the foreign policy approaches of the US and Canada.

The North American media have widely publicized the case of the Saudi Arabian woman sentenced to 200 lashes and six months in prison. Her "crime" was being gang-raped by seven Saudi men, and then having the gall to go to the press. This is clearly one of the most blatant violations of human rights imaginable by a government against one of its own citizens.

The Canadian government says it will lodge a formal protest with the Saudis, and Josee Verner, the Canadian minister responsible for the status of women, has rightly denounced the Saudi court ruling as "barbaric."

The United States, on the other hand, has thus far offered a shamefully tepid response, not wanting to offend our authoritarian ally in the "war on terror" and hoping to entice the Saudis to attend the Annapolis Arab-Israeli peace summit. Sounding more like an apologist for the Saudis than a spokesman for the United States, State Department spokesman Sean McCormack observed, "This is a part of a judicial procedure overseas in the court of a sovereign country." He then gave the mildest possible rebuke to the Saudis: "That said, most would find this relatively astonishing that something like this happens."

Where is the Bush administration's moral compass? Have the "war on terror" and our dependence on oil wiped out any sense of right and wrong? Is there nothing Saudi Arabia could do that we would actually condemn? One wonders if the Bush administration would react as mildly if it were the Iranians about to whip a rape victim.

One of the top stories in Canada this week was the death of two Canadian Forces soldiers in Afghanistan. The soldiers, both from a Quebec unit, were killed in an IED explosion during a fierce battle with the Taliban. The fighting was so intense that the cowardly Taliban grabbed children and used them as human shields, while the Canadian Forces called in artillery strikes so close to their own position that some were hit with shrapnel from friendly fire. The front page of The Globe and Mail, Canada's national newspaper, showed photos of soldiers in desert uniforms carrying Canadian flag-draped coffins of their comrades.

Many Americans probably remember that Canada refused to contribute troops to the invasion of Iraq, because most Canadians believed the Iraq war was unjustified. Perhaps less known is the fact that Canadian Forces have been fighting alongside Americans in Afghanistan since the beginning of that campaign. So far, about 75 Canadians have been killed in Afghanistan--a fairly large number considering that Canada's population is about one-tenth of ours. Far too many of the KIA were the victims of American friendly fire, but the Canadians are still there fighting beside us, because they know it's the right thing to do.

As the two soldiers were being mourned, another front page story concerned Canadian troops handing over captured child soldiers to the Afghan authorities despite reports that some of the children have been tortured and even raped in Kandahar prison. Michael Ignatieff, the former Harvard professor and current deputy leader of the opposition Liberal Party, cited international human rights law in his speech in the House of Commons. "These practices would be in violation of the Convention on the Rights of the Child," he said, and then asked, "How can the government justify the transfer of children and when will it end this practice?"

Prime Minister Harper promised to investigate, and also noted that Canada has complained to the Afghan government about the torture of Taliban prisoners. How do the Canadians know that torture is occurring? Because for the past six months, they have been systematically visiting Afghan prisons to check on the status of Taliban captives--even as they fight the Taliban in combat.

Such was the discourse in Parliament--the government and the loyal opposition one-upping each other on their commitment to human rights. Whereas we condone and even commit torture in the name of fighting terrorism, Canada condemns it wherever it occurs. That's what it looks like when a democracy follows its moral compass.

Canada has long been held in high esteem internationally. While many people around the world have a love-hate relationship with the United States, Canada tends to inspire only positive feelings. This is in part because Canada never had the burden of superpower responsibilities during the Cold War and, thanks to the American nuclear umbrella, it was able to "free ride" on security and devote much of its resources and attention to "non-strategic" global issues like international humanitarian law, peacekeeping, and development in the Third World. Rather than focusing inward, Canada long ago made the deliberate choice to pursue its values internationally, under both Tory and Liberal governments.

The widening gap, under President Bush's tenure, between America's own laudable values and its actions has undermined our international standing. This in turn handicaps any efforts to win hearts and minds in the "war on terror." Perhaps it is time that the United States takes a few pages from Canada's playbook. America, and the world, would be the better for it.

Atlas is an assistant professor of political science and director of The Richard G. Lugar Franciscan Center for Global Studies at Marian College.

(c) 2007 RealClearPolitics

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