These are the words you have never heard Stéphane Dion utter as the Foreign Affairs Minister twists himself into knots trying to rationalize the Trudeau government's authorization of the sale of light armoured vehicles to one of the world's most repressive and brutal dictatorships: "Saudi Arabia is a key partner for Canada, and an important and stable ally in a region marred by instability, terrorism and conflict," the minister's top bureaucrats noted in a March 21 memo seeking his approval of six export permits involving the $15-billion LAV contract.
Despite Mr. Dion's endless equivocation surrounding this deal, the preceding sentence succinctly explains the Trudeau government's move to green-light Canada's largest-ever arms-export contract. The Liberals can try to cast it as a "done deal" inherited from the more bellicose Conservative regime that preceded them. Mr. Dion can try to square it as consistent with his contrived foreign policy doctrine of "responsible conviction." This government has decided that the negative consequences of cancelling the contract – in financial penalties and lost jobs and votes in Southern Ontario manufacturing communities – outweigh its potential costs in civilian lives and the escalation of a Middle East arms race. When the rubber hits the road, all the honest-broker, our-hands-are-tied talk is just talk.
Canada has interests and, despite the Trudeau government's promises to re-engage with rogue regimes the Harper government sought to shun, countering Iran's growing influence in the Mideast is one of them. Indeed, one of the quid pro quos implicit in the U.S.-led deal to curb Iran's nuclear program in exchange for sanctions relief is a massive increase in Western arms sales to Saudi Arabia.
By selling LAVs to Saudi Arabia, Canada is in effect acting as an agent of U.S. foreign policy. U.S. President Barack Obama, who is visiting Saudi Arabia next week to reassure the kingdom's leaders unsettled by the Iran nuclear deal, has overseen a 275-per-cent increase in Western (mostly U.S.) arms sales to Saudi Arabia in the five years to 2015 compared with the previous five-year period.
Current Saudi orders "include 150 combat aircraft and thousands of air-to-surface missiles and anti-tank missiles from the [United States], 14 combat aircraft from [Britain] and an undisclosed but large number of armoured vehicles from Canada with turrets from Belgium," the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute noted in its 2016 review of global arms sales.
Traditionally, Canadian arms sales to the Sunni-led kingdom were arranged under the U.S. Foreign Military Sales program. This is the first time Saudi Arabia has done business directly with Canada. And make no mistake, this is a deal between the government of Canada and a serial human-rights abuser, and not, as Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has sought to characterize it, as one involving "a manufacturing company here in Canada" and the Sunni-led kingdom.
So, enough with the hypocrisy. Mr. Dion is surrounded by advisers recruited from academia who roundly criticized the Saudi deal before they joined his staff. His mandate letter from Mr. Trudeau instructs him to "support the deeply held Canadian desire to make a real and valuable contribution to a more peaceful and prosperous world."
But the arms build-up in the Middle East, as a newly flush Iran turns to Russia and China for weapons, will lead to more rather than fewer deadly conflicts in the region. There is a certain willful blindness among Mr. Dion's bureaucrats in failing to point this out in their memo, which similarly plays down the possibility the LAVs could be used to violate human rights in Saudi Arabia or elsewhere. The struggle between Iran and Saudi Arabia for regional supremacy is only beginning. Their proxy wars like the one in Yemen are likely to multiply.
"One of the reasons the Saudi government is so defensive is that it perceives the United States as not tough enough with Iran," Aaron David Miller and Jason Brodsky of the Woodrow Wilson International Center noted in a recent article in Foreign Affairs. "And Iran, sensing that Obama needs its help in Syria and for implementing the nuclear agreement, figures that it can play rough with Washington if necessary."
None of this is likely to make for the more "peaceful" world evoked in Mr. Dion's mandate letter. This is where the Trudeau government's rosy honest-broker rhetoric is exposed for the window dressing it is. In selling weapons to Saudi Arabia, Canada is taking sides and making a good buck in the process.
This is foreign policy realism in all its brutal moral ambiguity.