David Frum January 31st, 2006 at 12:00 am
The voters of the Palestinian Authority (PA) have just delivered Canada’s incoming Harper government its first test.
The Conservative position on Palestinian terrorism is clear: They condemn it–and they certainly oppose the Canadian taxpayer being asked to subsidize it.
But the career civil servants in the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade have their distinctive perspective. And over the coming days, they are going to try to persuade the new government to continue Canadian aid to the PA ($215-million over the past dozen years) despite Hamas’s victory in last week’s election.
Without being in the room, I can predict exactly what they will say to Harper’s people:
“As unwelcome as the result is, we must understand why the Palestinian people voted for Hamas. They weren’t voting for terrorism, war and the murder of the Jews. They were voting against corruption in government. It is important that we respect the democratic choice of the Palestinian people. If we don’t, we risk discrediting our own advocacy on behalf of democracy.
“The Hamas charter is repulsive, agreed. But our information indicates that there are potential pragmatists within the group.
“We believe that we can persuade these pragmatists to move away from their support for terrorism. But to persuade them, we have to engage with them. That means keeping dialogue open–which in turn means maintaining our diplomatic links to the Palestinian Authority and continuing our aid.
“We don’t fund the Palestinian government directly. We direct our funding to non-governmental organizations and UN agencies. This money serves important humanitarian purposes.
“If we are going to play a role encouraging Hamas to renounce terrorism and recognize Israel, we are going to need to maintain our credibility in Palestinian eyes as a fair-minded intermediary. So it will be important to continue our policy of casting critical votes against Israel at the UN.
“Although it is not our job to give political advice, we’re sure it has not escaped you that major groups within the Canadian Muslim community have welcomed this election result and are calling on you to respect the democratic process ….”
In short, the new government will be advised by its staff that although everything has changed in the PA, nothing must change in Ottawa.
The civil service argument rests on two principal assumptions:
1) Terrorism is not integral to Hamas. It is just a bad habit the group has somehow managed to pick up along the way, one that can be dropped without destroying the group’s very reason for being.
2) The way to persuade terrorists to stop being terrorists is to be nice to them. If you talk to them, show them respect and give them money, they will be so delighted that they will abandon terrorism.
Once you spell these assumptions out, you can immediately see how fanciful they are.
The way to persuade Hamas to abandon terrorism is not by rewarding them for terrorism, but by establishing beyond all doubts that terrorism brings only destruction on those who practice it–and disgrace to those who support it politically, financially and emotionally.
But if the civil service’s arguments on behalf of Hamas are flimsy, the resources they bring to bear in support of their arguments are formidable.
There are so many civil servants–and so few on the political staff.
The civil servants can concentrate on just their main goal–while the government has a million things to think of.
They have so much time–and the government has so little.
They resist, they delay, they misinterpret, they subvert. They never quite refuse an order they dislike, but it is almost impossible to get them to carry one out. And in the meantime, the normal business of the department continues chugging along. Money is paid out to favoured clients and constituencies. Lower-level officials intuit and obey the wishes of higher-level officials rather than the commands of the Cabinet and prime minister.
The civil servants begin gradually, probing to see how much they can get away with. And as they try to move the incoming Harper government away from its anti-terrorist principles, they will be taking that government’s measure.
The election of Hamas is a huge issue in its own right for Canada and all the Western democracies. For this new government, it is also a test–the first of many to come. Sometimes the issue will be foreign policy, sometimes domestic. But the question will always be the same: Who in reality governs Canada?