Conservative politicians flock to U.S. media to whip up ignorance and bile: Neil Macdonald

The conservative American public, guided by a churlish, isolationist president, is looking for whipping boys and imagined foreign enemies at the moment. So what do our Conservative politicians do? They offer up Canada, with outrage over the Omar Khadr settlement.

Peter Kent and Michelle Rempel say they wanted to educate Americans about the Omar Khadr settlement

Peter Kent took part recently in what was clearly an orchestrated effort to discredit the Canadian government abroad. (Justin Tang/Canadian Press)

I never met, but I greatly admired, the late Yossi Sarid.

He led the leftist political party Meretz when I reported from the Middle East 20 years ago.

The party was small, and perpetually out of power, and yet Sarid was far more famous among Israelis than most of their other politicians.

His quotes seemed to appear in Israeli newspapers daily. He declared himself as both in love with and ashamed of Israel.

He attacked the occupation of the West Bank and control of Gaza. He attacked the Israeli army's indifference to violence by Jewish settlers and its violent treatment of Palestinian children. Believe me, that took courage, especially during an intifada.

When German Chancellor Angela Merkel declared in 2015 that there would be no limit to the number of refugees her country would accept, even as Israel closed its doors to people fleeing oppression in Africa, Sarid wrote: "Suddenly they sound like Jews, and we sound like Germans."

Keeping it in-country

There was just one limit to Sarid's ferocious rhetoric: he kept it within Israel, almost always speaking in Hebrew. Every foreign reporter in Jerusalem knew the futility of chasing a Sarid interview. He refused to denounce his country to a foreign audience. He said that once to my producer, before hanging up the phone.

Joe Wilson, the American diplomat who blew the whistle on George W. Bush's concocted theory that Saddam Hussein was working on a nuclear weapon, took the same approach.

After exposing the administration's lie in the New York Times, Wilson was targeted by the White House, and his wife's covert CIA role was leaked to the press, apparently out of revenge, triggering an investigation and scandal.

Through it all, Wilson spoke out often and forcefully, but when I approached him on the street, he declined: "I don't criticize my country in foreign media," he said.

And then there's the Peter Kent approach.

Kent, a former TV anchor now employed as a Conservative member of Parliament and foreign affairs critic, took part recently in what was clearly an orchestrated effort to discredit the Canadian government abroad.

Furious about the reported $10.5 million paid to former Guantanamo Bay inmate and Canadian citizen Omar Khadr, Kent turned not to a Canadian media outlet, but to the Wall Street Journal, one of America's most influential newspapers.

Under the headline: "A terrorist's big payday, courtesy of Trudeau," Kent accused the Canadian government of falling all over itself to turn a terrorist into a multimillionaire. He called the settlement – it was paid to settle a $20-million lawsuit Khadr had filed – a subversion of Canadian values, and an affront to the family of Sgt. Christopher Speer, the U.S. Delta Force soldier Khadr was accused of killing on an Afghan battlefield in 2002.

Kent's piece was a masterpiece of nuance-free populism – it never mentioned, for example, that Khadr was taken to Afghanistan by his extremist father at the age of 10, or that he was 15 when he allegedly tossed the grenade that killed the special forces soldier, who was dressed as an Afghan and was in the process of entering the house in which Khadr had been sheltering – a house that had just been bombed to smithereens by an American warplane, killing nearly everyone else inside.

(Had Khadr been killed in that bombardment, or by Speer's team, the U.S. government would have considered him a legitimate casualty of a legitimate war. That he struck at an attacking soldier after surviving, though, made him a terrorist murderer.)

Kent's piece never mentioned that Khadr was taken to Afghanistan by his extremist father at the age of 10. (Colin Perkel/Canadian Press)

Kent also glossed over the fact that the Canadian Supreme Court had ruled twice that Khadr's constitutional rights had been violated by denial of due process and several interrogations under torture, the questioning often done by Canadian officials. 

Kent did, though, emphasize that Khadr had "pleaded guilty on five war crimes charges" after seven years in Guantanamo, treating the American military commissions there, so discredited by American courts, as though they were actually a system of justice. As if Khadr, who has since repudiated his plea, had any real choice, other than a life in chains.

Well, Kent is entitled to his opinion. Obviously he believes a 15-year-old can be a master terrorist. Maybe he thinks a 10-year-old can, too. Maybe he thinks the child soldiers who were drugged and unleashed to amputate civilians' limbs in Sierra Leone should be prosecuted rather than pitied.

But why would he choose a conservative American news outlet to express his fury?

Kent has said he felt he needed to educate Americans about the payment. Because, you know, the Trump administration might not have noticed, and of course Americans had no access to the massive online news coverage here of the Khadr settlement.

Conservative MP Michelle Rempel, meanwhile, appeared on Fox News Channel to provide her own fair-and-balanced assessment.

Canadians, she informed Fox viewers, are outraged. The case, she said, should have played out in court (where Khadr, whose rights were violated, could have been awarded far more, and where Canadian officials' complicity with George W. Bush's torturers might have been minutely examined).

Conservative MP Cheryl Gallant jumped in, too, launching a weird fake-newscast screed on Facebook about the settlement.

Now, I understand a lot of Canadians are uncomfortable with it. Since I returned from summer vacation, it seems to be the only dinner table topic under discussion.

But when the Canadian government grossly violates a citizen's rights, I am glad to see redress, if only as a deterrent. I'm a strong believer in the notion that undeterred, the spooks will eventually come for you, too.

I also know this: the last thing we need is our politicians down in the U.S., whipping up even more ignorance and bile toward Canada among American conservatives.

Blaming Canada

Don't forget, a lot of them still blame Canada for allowing the Sept. 11 attackers into America, which is entirely false, but which lives on in the American mind to this day, despite years of patient fact-checking by Canadian diplomats in Washington.

The conservative American public, guided by a churlish, isolationist president, is looking for whipping boys and imagined foreign enemies at the moment.

They don't need encouraging by politicians who claim to speak for Canadians. Conservatives might try to keep in mind that it's supposed to be the Loyal Opposition.

This column is part of CBC's Opinion section. For more information about this section, please read this editor's blog and our FAQ.


Neil Macdonald is a former foreign correspondent and columnist for CBC News who has also worked in newspapers. He speaks English and French fluently, as well as some Arabic.


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