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opinion

Charles Taylor issued a warning on the weekend, cautioning that Prime Minister Stephen Harper's anti-niqab rhetoric helps terrorist recruiters.

Mr. Taylor, the well-known philosopher who headed up a Quebec commission on cultural and religious minorities, suggested that the federal Conservatives are surfing on Islamophobic sentiment, which makes alienated Muslim Canadians easier targets for recruitment by radical Islamist terrorists.

Mr. Taylor is no slouch. Immigration Minister Chris Alexander has called him "one of the world's greatest living philosophers," although the minister might well be revising that appraisal now.

But the Montreal professor makes a valid point, and one that should be seen in a broader context. It's not just anti-Muslim rhetoric that puts Canada high on the radar list of enemies, or the upping of the ante by extending the Islamic State mission to Syria. It's also how Ottawa has resorted to provocative rhetoric and incendiary statecraft elsewhere: With Russia by way of unsubstantiated accusations, the latest being that they confronted us in the Black Sea. With Iran in shutting down our embassy in Tehran. With the Arab world through unconditional support for Israel.

To goad adversaries, particularly when you are not a big military power, is to invite retaliation. Consequences follow for those who get too big for their britches.

This is not to say that Canada shouldn't be making a military contribution to fight the Islamic State. We should be. Opposition parties need to bear in mind that what the Conservatives have undertaken is hardly a large commitment – we've sent nine planes and a few dozen support troops. We're making about 3 per cent of the coalition's air strikes. It's a mini-mission.

But instead of framing it in that context, our government is hyping it for perceived political gain, as with our bellicose offerings in other parts of the world.

Canada's standing at the United Nations is arguably the lowest it has ever been. Our disregard for international law, which experts say we are breaking by going into Syria, was signalled when Mr. Harper literally laughed off a question on the matter from New Democratic Leader Thomas Mulcair. Relations with China have been hurt by our juvenile political approach to diplomacy, as former diplomat David Mulroney has recounted in his new book Middle Power, Middle Kingdom. Diplomacy is not defined by how loud you can shout.

It's not just Mr. Harper who equates conservatism with confrontation. There's his new Defence Minister. Many commentators, myself included, have written flatteringly about Jason Kenney over the years; super smart, tireless worker, more inclined to fact than fiction. But more recently, he has come across as a gaffe-prone grandstander. His office has made unsubstantiated charges about Russia confronting Canadian warships in the Black Sea. He tweeted a photo purporting to show Muslim women in slavery that proved to be nothing of the sort. He wrongly accused the NDP of opposing every overseas military deployment in Canadian history. He also got his facts wrong about the Liberal record on defence spending.

Mr. Alexander has had experience as a diplomat – in Afghanistan, no less. But you'd never know it. Last week, he listed the hijab as a face covering that has no place in the citizenship ceremony. The problem? It's a head scarf, not normally used to cover the face. "Hey, before you send a race-baiting e-mail," tweeted Liberal strategist Gerald Butts, "at least know the difference between a hijab and a niqab."

Race-baiting? Prof. Taylor, who was speaking at the Broadbent Institute, said Muslim stereotyping and stigmatization is "sociologically very, very similar" to that faced by Jews in the past. "We've got to fight it wherever it comes up."

But anyone looking at how the Conservatives' polling numbers have risen in Quebec with their niqab positioning will not be banking on a strong fight, at least not from Ottawa.

The Conservatives are right to join the military campaign against barbarian enemies. It's the rash way they're administering the broad sweep of foreign policy that is the problem. Substituting polemics for statecraft does not make Canada a safer place – it does the opposite.