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Is Harper the Last True Neo-Con?

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"Can't we just start acting as though pre-2006 Harper was some other guy entirely who just happened to share the same name by a wild coincidence?"

So wrote a commenter on Aaron Wherry's blog a few months ago, understandably frustrated with trying to keep a handle on all of our PM's wild ideological fluctuations in the years since his swearing-in.

Old Stephen Harper opposed big government and runway spending. New Harper has presided over a 22 per cent spending hike. Old Harper was critical of unchecked immigration and multiculturalism. New Harper brags about ratcheting immigration rates to 57-year highs. Old Harper felt no shame embracing the cause of social conservatism. New Harper couldn't stand up for gay marriage fast enough the second the rumour mill started grinding against him.

Yet a CBC interview with the PM this week revealed that in at least one important realm Harper's stripes have barely changed at all. Speaking of the nuclear threat posed by Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's Iran, the Prime Minister declared himself officially "frightened," before lapsing into the same sort of rhetorical bluster he's used since his days as an opposition bench booster for the overthrow of Saddam Hussein.

"I've watched and listened to what the leadership in the Iranian regime says, and it frightens me," he said. "In my judgment, these are people who have a particular fanatically religious worldview, and their statements imply to me no hesitation of using nuclear weapons if they see them achieving their religious or political purposes."

Though predictably guarded and obtuse in his views regarding what should be done next, what Harper did say probably offered precious little to alleviate anyone hoping that Canada would stay neutral amid the next great Mid-East crisis. Quoting President Obama's position that "all options are on the table" Harper referred to the "growing consensus" of international leaders that "when we talk about these issues, we talk about the full range of questions around these issues."

In contrast to the man's constant waffling elsewhere, foreign policy is the only real realm of "Harperism" where the PM has never significantly recanted, ignored, or undermined his own past views -- an occurrence only made possible by a shifting political culture that has moved foreign affairs to a conveniently low rung on the ladder of priorities. It's the one realm, in short, where Harper still sounds like the unabashed right-wing Republican we were always promised (or feared).

As evidence, we need look no further than the fact that Harper has routinely taken aim at Barack Obama for all the same sorts of foreign policy sins the GOP now cites in every public debate. When Obama outed himself as the first U.S. President to support the restoration of Israel's pre-1967 borders, for instance, Harper wasted little time in preventing both the G8 and Francaphonie from echoing his sentiments, often with uncharacteristic frankness. And it's not just Rick Perry who has tied the building of pipelines at home to fighting Islamism abroad: "When you look at the Iranians threatening to block the Strait of Hormuz, I think that just illustrates how critical it is that supply for the United States be North American," the PM lectured Peter Mansbridge in sombre tones.

Should military action, either by Israel or America, be taken against Iran someday, there can really be little question that Harper would be immediately onside. From Afghanistan to Iraq to Lebanon to Libya, in his long political career, the man has rarely met an invasion he didn't like, or an international dispute in which force was not a viable solution.

Canada's PM may actually be one of the western world's last surviving neo-cons, and it's very much worth re-reading his (in)famous 2003 parliamentary speech on the Iraq invasion for a vivid glimpse of just how seriously and thoughtfully Harper takes doctrines of global policing and regime change, and the extent to which his rhetoric hasn't really changed that much in the years since.

I must admit I am not yet at the point where I can say with any great confidence or urgency that military action against Iran is either desirable or inevitable, and my faith in the leadership of the Obama and Netanyahu administrations is hardly absolute.

Yet in a small country like Canada, where, in the words of Dalton Camp "little of single importance in the global scene of things has ever been at issue, much less determined," it's important to keep the practical limits of our national power in mind.  Knowing that no great sacrifice or commitment will be required of Canada in either case, the defense of nuclear non-proliferation and Iranian liberty seems a justifiable enough cause to cheer from the sidelines.

Since the die seems to have already been cast, it's now up to Harper's critics to tell us why this perspective is the wrong one.

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