Why base policy on facts and evidence when you can exploit fear instead? It doesn’t take a psychologist to know that fear is a much more powerful motivator than boring old rational argument. Political scientists have long studied the use of fear-based appeals as techniques that “entrepreneurial” politicians may use to mobilize support. The Harper government seems to understand this intuitively, based on the comments of senior ministers last week, both at home and abroad.
Imagine a split screen image. On one side is Vic Toews, Canada’s Minister of Public Safety, testifying Wednesday before a Senate committee on the government’s omnibus crime bill.
During the 2011 election campaign, the Conservatives promised to make Canada a place where “law abiding” folks “don’t have to worry when they go to bed at night; where they don’t have to look over their shoulders as they walk down the street.” However, the tough-on-crime agenda ran into an awkward fact: Canada’s crime rate had been falling for years. According to Statistics Canada, police-reported crime continued declining in 2010 (the last year for which statistics are available) and reached its lowest level since 1973.
Faced with this inconvenient truth, Minister Toews last week advised the Senate committee that he didn’t know if crime was up or down. “Let’s not talk about statistics, let’s talk about danger,” he said. It was a remarkable pronouncement. He might as well have said: “We know Canadians hear reports of crime and have a vague sense of menace. By focusing on ‘danger’ instead of facts, I am speaking directly to their concerns. They know what I mean.”
Let’s be clear: this is a strategy of fostering and exploiting misplaced public fears about an imagined mounting crime rate. It is a cynical and wrong strategy. It’s factually wrong; it’s ethically wrong; and it’s destined to produce the wrong kind of policies—ones based on fictitious trends and distorted portraits of actual risk.
Now, please turn your attention to the other side of our split screen, where Foreign Minister John Baird is completing a three-day visit to Israel. He is making comments on Iran, a country that both he and Prime Minister Stephen Harper have described as the “world’s most serious threat to international peace.”
They are right to be concerned. The International Atomic Energy Agency still lacks definitive evidence of an Iranian nuclear weapons program, but there is more than enough circumstantial evidence to warrant the aggressive diplomatic and economic squeeze that Canada and other western countries are putting on that country. As I’ve written previously, any proliferation of weapons of mass destruction is bad news—and there are few more odious regimes in the world than the one that has ruled Iran since the Islamic Revolution of 1979.
In January, however, the Prime Minister made some surprising comments. In two separate interviews, he said not only that Iran was seeking nuclear weapons, but that the country’s rulers would have “no hesitation of using nuclear weapons if they see them achieving their religious or political purposes.”
This was a problematic claim for two reasons. First, the idea that Iranian leaders wouldn’t hesitate to use nuclear weapons flies in the face of what we know about the behaviour of the Iranian regime. For all their revolutionary jihadist talk, the country’s ruling mullahs have consistently worked to realize one goal above all others: keeping themselves in power.
Second, expressing this dubious position in public had important implications for policy. If the Iranian government is indeed suicidal, a pre-emptive attack may be warranted, and perhaps even required. No one knows what the effects of such a strike might be: whether it would inflame the broader region, or indeed whether it would have any lasting impact on Iran’s nuclear potential. For these reasons, the Obama Administration—while refusing to rule out the possibility of military action against Iran—has reportedly informed Israel that it would not support such a strike.
This is the context in which Mr. Harper has opined on the suicidal intentions of the Iranian regime. In making this assertion, the prime minister was, in effect, weighing into a domestic Israeli debate (between those who favour a pre-emptive military strike and those who prefer restraint) and a growing diplomatic divide between Israel and the U.S. over the nature of the Iranian threat and how to respond to it. Why else, other than to influence this debate, or to prepare Canadian public opinion for a more aggressive Canadian policy towards Iran, would Mr. Harper utter these remarks at such a delicate moment?
Maybe he was just musing aloud, I thought at the time. But it turns out he wasn’t. Back on the split screen, John Baird is speaking to an Israeli newspaper reporter last week. “I believe Iran will use nuclear weapons,” he says, making the point in even blunter language than the prime minister. This contention now appears to be a “key message” of the government, or part of its communications strategy, which means we are likely to hear it repeated at every opportunity, until it becomes so familiar that ordinary listeners begin to take its veracity for granted.
Yet it is also a position that most experts on Iran would judge as dubious at best. This may be the reason why no NATO country other than Canada, to my knowledge, has made such a bold and questionable assertion. Indeed, it is especially jarring at a moment when our closest ally, the United States, is counseling restraint.
I know the prime minister does not care that Canada is out of step with its allies – that he takes pride in taking stands on principle, and in the fact that his government will not “go along to get along.” In this case, however, his “principle” is really just idiosyncratic speculation—and dangerously provocative speculation at that.
Now, zoom out. The two parts of our split screen are actually mirror images of sorts. Threat inflation has become a defining characteristic of the Harper government’s policy, both at home and abroad. Welcome to the New Canada.
This post first appeared on the CIC’s Roundtable blog at opencanada.org.