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Media Bites: On Syria, Canada's Once Again Playing Second Fiddle

09/03/2013 08:15 EDT | Updated 11/03/2013 05:12 EST

Though we love to convince ourselves otherwise, there's not a lot of evidence to suggest Canadian foreign policy really matters all that much. Any patriot who cracks a weighty tome on some major international incident and flips to the "C" section of the index is invariably disappointed at how little mention of his homeland he finds. Maybe a treaty was signed in Ottawa. Perhaps some foreign leader was educated in Montreal. But unless a Canadian's telling the story, pickings beyond that will be slim.

We're taught a lot of corny cliches about how Canada "punches above its weight" in the global arena and "commands the respect of the world," but these are shibboleths of self-regard rather than objective observations. For those, you have to turn to the musings of disinterested third parties like the long-reigning Soviet diplomat Andrei Gromyko, who once described Canada as "the boring second fiddle in the American symphony."

Prime Minister Harper's stance on Syria certainly seems to be a textbook instance of boring second-fiddleism. Like a good backup musician, the PM's endorsed the idea that "Western military action" should be taken against the blood-and-poison-soaked regime of Bashar al-Assad, which in practice means supporting President Obama's promised plan to bomb select Syrian sites at some uncertain time in the uncertain future. And like a good bore, Harp's also emphasized that said support will entail precisely no Canadian military contribution whatsoever. It's a position that combines muscular moral posturing (the "use of chemical weapons merits a firm response," Harper concluded last week) with convenient claims of martial weakness (any war will probably "involve cruise missiles or armed drones, neither of which Canada has," apologized Minister Baird). In the words of the Toronto Star's Thomas Walkom, it was all "very Canadian."

For its part, this country's commentariat has hardly been pushing for anything more robust, with virtually every major Canadian pundit in every major Canadian paper regarding Obama's sabre-rattling with equal parts apathy and apprehension.

Is the government of President Assad really so much worse than his Islamist opponents that we're prepared to risk toppling the former for the latter? Can that even be done without committing ground troops to another decade-long mideast quagmire? Is doing anything better than doing nothing?

No, reply the columnists, in a broad spectrum of opposition. Conservatives like Ezra Levant think Obama's talk of bombing Assad amounts to little more than using the Pentagon as a "PR tool for a community organizer president" in the shadow of looming Congressional elections, while liberals like Haroon Siddiqui in the Star see a "helpless," "dithering" White House that's waited so long to do the right thing (i.e., deposing Assad two years and 30,000 murders ago) it's left with nothing but bad options.

The pro-bombing faction, in contrast, is small and insecure. The National Post's Barbara Kay is okay with the idea, but is also willing to concede it "might not be necessary" if Assad would just quit already. Her even more nuanced colleague Andrew Coyne reasons that "the costs, moral and strategic, of doing nothing are at least as great as the costs of intervening" -- in other words, if things are likely to get worse, wouldn't it be better if we could at least influence what kind of worse they get?

A slightly more interesting press debate, meanwhile, is the question of whether Stephen Harper should take a page from the British prime minister's playbook, and reconvene our vacationing parliament to discuss his meaningless declaration of pseudo-support for some American bomb strikes that may or may not even wind up happening.

In their most recent editorial on the dilemma, the Globe and Mail editorial board bemoans how Canada's legislature has been a "conspicuously silent" participant in the global discussion on Syria (making the rather fanciful assumption that Canadian diplomacy is usually inconspicuously loud). "If Parliament doesn't debate the Syrian crisis, why have a Parliament?" they pine -- especially considering we have a PM who's established precedent that the House of Commons gets to weigh in on this sort of stuff.

Yeah, agrees Tim Harper in the Star, "that's what the place is for." And let's not forget parliament is also home to two men who theoretically want to be prime minister themselves someday. So why not get them to "stand in their place and explain what they would do if they held power"?

It's no mystery, of course, how such a parliamentary debate would pan out. Doubtless there'd be much soaring rhetoric about Canada's affinity for international law and the need to assert our "historic role" as champions of human rights. There'd be cheap shots exchanged over the Prime Minister's support of America's 2003 invasion of Iraq, and everyone would be reminded -- not for the first time -- that the NDP houses the partisan heirs of those who opposed Canada's participation in World War II. Lester Pearson's name would be almost certainly be thrown around.

At some point the majority would triumph and a resolution would pass; our MPs would demand that Ottawa heartily back the actions of our Yankee allies (from the sidelines, of course), or conclude that our interests are better served by neutrality. Either way, the result would offer little practical difference from the policy of supportive non-involvement the Prime Minister's already articulated. When the history books were written, we'd still be destined for the second appendix.

This isn't to say Canadian foreign policy decisions are never worth debating. But how much time do you need to spend fine-tuning the second fiddle?

Syria War In August (Warning: Graphic Images)