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Prime Minister Stephen Harper speaks with Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird at the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting in Perth, Australia, on Oct. 28, 2011. (Adrian Wyld/THE CANADIAN PRESS)
Prime Minister Stephen Harper speaks with Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird at the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting in Perth, Australia, on Oct. 28, 2011. (Adrian Wyld/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

GERALD CAPLAN

On Syria, Canada’s politicians say the darnedest things Add to ...

Recently in this space I’ve tried to account for the mind-boggling statements that are routinely made by our elected leaders. Does power permit them to say anything that comes to their minds, however untrue?

Here one can hardly resist pointing to Quebec Premier Pauline Marois’ recent delusionary assertions about multiculturalism in England and France. But much more consequential, it seems to me, is the way the Syrian crisis has inspired our leaders to rhetoric well beyond where the evidence takes us. Here, for example, is our own Prime Minister on Sept. 6:

“I think what we have been seeing over the past several months is the Syrian government, which finds itself in a stalemate, believes that it can win... the civil war in Syria through the use of chemical weapons. And they have been step-by-step ratcheting up that usage to see if anyone is going to challenge it.”

It is certainly plausible that the Assad government launched the infamous chemical attack. But these are serious accusations, for which the evidence is by no means decisive. What exactly has been ratcheted up “step by step” other than allegations? Stephen Harper loves taking pot shots at both Bashar al-Assad and Russian President Vladimir Putin. But how do they contribute to solving the crisis?

Mr. Harper is also in a tizzy about Russia using its veto in the Security Council to prevent the authorization of force against Mr. Assad’s regime. “We are simply not prepared,” he announced, “to accept the idea that there is a Russian veto over all of our actions.” Hold on now. In fact, as he must surely know, all five permanent members of the Security Council have the veto. And, in the past 40 years, it’s been most frequently used by the U.S. to block criticism of Israel. Given the Harper government’s uncritical pro-Israel stance, the veto power has mainly been employed as it would want. Is Mr. Harper even aware of this?

In any event, like it or not, that’s the way the UN works. I’m among those who don’t like it. In many ways both the composition and the rules of the Security Council are a travesty and should be changed. But it’s a complicated, frustrating process – a problem Canadians should be sympathetic to (see: Senate of Canada). Until it changes, it’s what we must live with. Mr. Harper and Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird are awfully good at the easy job of denouncing the UN and awfully bad at suggesting viable alternatives. How does this help the cause of peace?

Mr. Baird has also added his own particular reality to that favored by his boss. He’s confident Canadians will be outraged when they see “25,000 children, men and women foaming at the mouth, their nerves jerking as their lungs dissolved?...You know I’ve been briefed on this, the effects of the gas … you almost want to cry.” Yes, gas has hideous effects, though why it’s worse than all the other ways of dying in a war I’m not at all sure. A graphic description of suffering in every conflict since Cain slew poor Abel would also make you want to cry. There’s always much to cry about in our world.

But besides that, where did 25,000 come from? Search as I might, I could find no evidence for this claim. It seems to have no basis in fact. Even overwrought U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, who delivered himself of the absurd assertion that Mr. Assad’s chemicals had killed 1,429 Syrians, including at least 426 children – as if anyone could possibly acquire such precise data – has never thrown around that 25,000 figure.

But Mr. Kerry’s boss used other tricks last week to manipulate public opinion. Listen to President Barack Obama in his TV address on Syria:

“My fellow Americans, for nearly seven decades, the United States has been the anchor of global security…The burdens of leadership are often heavy, but the world is a better place because we have borne them….Our ideals and principles, as well as our national security, are at stake in Syria, along with our leadership of a world where we seek to ensure that the worst weapons will never be used….That’s what makes America different. That’s what makes us exceptional. With humility, but with resolve, let us never lose sight of that essential truth.”

Let’s agree to disagree on what “humility” means. But “exceptional” is surely accurate. The proof is overwhelming and obvious. No other country has ever used the atomic bomb. Or dropped Agent Orange and napalm on Cambodia, Vietnam and Laos. Or enabled Saddam Hussein to gas Iranians. Or colluded with dozens of tyrannical governments in every corner of the world.

Or has had so many mass murders. Etc., etc., etc. Now that’s a truly exceptional record.

Meanwhile, Syrians die and no one has a clue how to stop it. But that doesn’t stop politicians from saying the darndest things.

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