Trudeau’s Moment in the Middle East

Mohamad Yaghi

In 1919, the then  US President Woodrow Wilson set up an international commission to study the Ottoman Empire’s former mandates and the Middle East’s possible future. Remarkably, Wilson’s intention and objective was to understand the grievances of the Middle East’s inhabitants and create an American policy based on their opinions. Although Wilson’s new approach to foreign policy was progressive, those initiatives were not necessarily intended to better the region. Wilson wanted new nations to be constructed based on studied ethnographic features as opposed to the Sykes-Picot Agreement that drew borders based on British or French (and Imperial Russian) interests. Essentially, Wilson wanted to create a new Middle East based on what inhabitants desired and shape an American foreign policy to adopt those needs. Two academics from Oberlin College, Henry Churchill King and Charles R. Crane, were appointed and created what has now become known as the King-Crane Commission.

Not only was this one of the first initiatives to study public opinion in the region, but the results of the survey were quite telling. Many Muslims in modern day Syria preferred, if it was obligatory, to live under an American mandate instead of a British or French one. In sharp contrast to contemporary politics, the U.S. was a favoured and liked political power. Such an opinion was not unique in the region; several factions in Turkey also wanted to be under American rule. These political actors in Turkey felt that if they were under American leadership then they would have to assume an American political model, and that would dash away any future threat of a monarchy or authoritarian rule. Since then, America’s popularity in the region has withered. American support for authoritarian figures and a hardline support of Israel has left many Arabs frustrated at U.S. foreign policy and America’s role as a mediator in the peace process has been a failure. Recent illegal seizure of land in the West Bank has effectively put the clauses of the Oslo Accord under serious threat. Canada has sometimes stepped into that void and taken a prominent position, such as Lester Pearson’s role in the Suez Crisis and introduction of peacekeeping forces, but Stephen Harper’s reign has severely damaged that legacy.

Stephen Harper’s awful rendition of The Beatles’ “Hey Jude” during a trip to Israel in 2014 summarized Canadian foreign policy in the Middle East for the last 10 years: noisy, off-tune, and embarrassing. Harper’s years in government have taken Canada from a nation that actors in the Middle East can mediate with to a pariah state. Even to Arab Canadians, Harper’s domestic policies made many, like myself, feel alienated and discriminated against. His failure to criticize Israel’s human rights record and his attack on the Boycott, Divest, and Sanctions Movement has added to this alienation.  Harper’s admiration of Netanyahu, though understood in a grander geo-political framework, was actually mocked by the Israelis themselves. John Baird’s often-ignored speeches at the United Nations General Assembly also did not help Canada’s position as a broker in the region.

Even though Harper’s leadership has hurt Canada’s international position, Justin Trudeau now has a golden opportunity to redeem Canada in the Middle East. His permissive stances on Syrian refugees, illegal Israeli settlements in the West Bank, cessation of airstrikes against ISIS, and current violence between Israelis and Palestinians has skyrocketed his popularity in the region. Compared to Harper, Trudeau has not pandered to Netanyahu’s aggressive policies and has been adamant on celebrating Canada’s diversity. Trudeau will most likely not solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but he does have an opportunity to make Canada relevant again and not just a spectator.

Canada’s role in the Middle East is imperative and vital. Canada’s diversity does not only make Canada a unique nation, but a country with a much-needed political role. As opposed to other nations handling various crises in the Middle East, Canada’s political establishment, which reflects a broader swath of the world population, makes Canada a more impartial operator. Canada can potentially be seen as an “Honest Broker”, as opposed to Historian Rashid Khalidi’s reference to the U.S. as a “Broker of Deceit.” Essentially, Canada would make more of an effort to put the Israelis and Palestinians on an equal footing at the negotiation table. Peace negotiations headed by the Americans in the past placed Palestinian representatives at a disadvantage.

Trudeau’s attempt at this challenge can be seen as genuine and honest. His controversial policy to halt bombing ISIS targets in Syria and Iraq has had many added benefits. Apart from assassinating key figures, drone warfare rarely does any good. Instead many terrorist groups have used condemnations against drone warfare as a recruiting tool. Inviting Syrian refugees to Canada has made Trudeau appear sympathetic and has given Canada a needed image makeover. In relation to Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations, Canada’s toughened resolve against Israeli recent seizure of land in the West Bank has given Canada needed relevance and voice in the crisis.

Canada has an opportunity to return to the diplomatic table, but more importantly, it has every right to lead the world to better resolutions. The U.S. has had its moment to be an honest broker, and now it’s time for Canada to step up.


Mohamad Yaghi is a Master of Public Policy Graduate, 2017. He is interested in urban, foreign, and security policy and enjoys long-distance swimming. While Mohamad is not at the School of Public Policy and Governance, you can find him buying a bucket of coffee or reporting.

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