How one American, the Washington Post's J.J. McCullough, sees incoherence in our prime minister's foreign policy and the role it played in Canada's current tiff with the Saudis.
The worsening spat between the governments of Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has been mostly analyzed from the Saudi angle: a case study of the kingdom’s eggshell sensitivities and bossy expectations of deference. Yet the story also reveals much about Trudeau’s own inadequacies as a statesman, and the thoroughly confused nature of his foreign-policy priorities.
...Saudi Arabia has long faced an uphill PR battle in Canada. On the left, it is routinely portrayed as the quintessential example of a repulsive “ally” exposing the moral hypocrisy of the Ottawa elite; a vicious dictatorship given billions in arms to satiate Canada’s addiction to fossil fuels. On the right, the kingdom serves a standard shorthand for Sharia tyranny, whose oil imports are an embarrassing reminder of Canada’s under-utilized natural resources. This confluence of ideological interests has, thus far, helped ensure Trudeau’s Saudi crisis is more politically salvageable than earlier diplomatic snares. As the prime minister doubles down on support of the offending tweet, a broad right-left coalition happily takes Saudi bad faith for granted, as when a Saudi group posted a picture on social media of an Air Canada jet flying over Toronto and ranted about the kingdom “threatening to 9/11 Canada.”
Yet from a higher vantage point, one sees a familiar story: A Canadian prime minister whose ability to identify friends and enemies is out of sync with the moment of history he inhabits. Saudi Arabia is an absolute monarchy whose detention of activists is antithetical to Canadian democracy. But this can just as easily be said of Cuba and China, whose regimes Trudeau has showered with cartoonish affection. The distinction is that, while the ruler of Saudi Arabia is a young reformist exerting targeted effort to scale back some of his government’s hideousness, including Wahhabi fundamentalism, Trudeau happily seeks opportunities in dictatorships far less self-conscious.
It’s entirely possible the crown prince will not be successful in his efforts. However, if Canada’s goal, is a foreign policy oriented to endorse the spread of global liberalism, it is not at all obvious how a prolonged fight with Riyadh is more principled than tighter trade ties to Beijing or an embassy in Tehran.
Analogies to the ISIS war or the Modi summit seem apt. A country like Canada cannot affect much of consequence on the international stage. But if the goal is future relevance, the Trudeau administration should, at least, possess awareness of where its incompetence is best directed.The Council on Foreign Relations senior fellow, Steven Cook, sees the squabble much differently. To Mr. Cook, this is all about the mortal weakness of the effective head of state, crown prince Mohammad bin Salman.
There are various theories to explain the Saudi reaction to Canada’s tweet. Some analysts have suggested that the episode is another example of Saudi Arabia’s reckless foreign policy under Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. Others see it as another warning to Saudis that the only reforms in the kingdom are those that the crown prince has articulated, and they are at their peril should Saudis demand more. Both explanations are plausible—and either way, Mohammed bin Salman comes out looking every bit the impetuous, petty, immature, tyrant that his critics say he is.
Arab leaders have some good reasons for responding poorly to activists and nongovernmental organizations that international supporters of these individuals and groups tend to overlook. But rounding up people who peacefully express a different vision of society from the Saudi leadership is weak. Not just weak in a vague moral sense, but as a basic description of the government’s political standing. General rule: If a leader is arresting people who disagree with them, it is a sign that this leader is well aware of a significant gap between the stories the government is telling its citizens about how good life is under its benevolent leaders and how people are actually experiencing it. The Saudi women in jail right now had to be arrested, because if they weren’t silenced, there would be an ever-increasing risk that they would expose the emptiness of the government’s sunny narrative about the future. Coercion of this sort is a demonstration of brute force and political weakness.
For all the Saudi government’s declarations about the “new Saudi Arabia” and how the country is moving forward thanks to the crown prince’s reform program, it rings hollow against the background of jailed peaceful dissenters. The Saudis will argue that all the Western reporting and analysis is wrong—the people arrested were in communication with foreign countries and thus trying to undermine the Saudi state. It is a claim that is both tiresome—because it comes from the script every foreign ministry reads anytime their governments want to repress activists—and revealing. There is no foreign conspiracy, of course. It is the dodge of a nervous Saudi leadership, fearful that its people will discover its inability to deliver on its promises.
...Still, whatever beating the Saudis are taking over the war of words with Canada, it is entirely of Riyadh’s own making and well deserved. One is hard-pressed to truly understand what officials at the Royal Court are thinking, beyond taking a cue from the Trump administration and declaring, “We are Saudi Arabia, bitches.” The Saudis really can’t have it every which way: posturing as “reformers,” tossing activists in jail, and then taking umbrage when people dare criticize them for not actually reforming.
The crown prince decided to pick a fight with the wrong country. Not because Canada is powerful and the Saudis are dependent upon them, but rather because Ottawa has taken a stand on the straightforward principle that peaceful dissent is not a crime. In their overreaction, the Saudis have decided to flaunt their own foolishness and feebleness. Instead of railing against Ottawa, Riyadh should apologize for its rash behavior. That’s what the Canadians would do.