Whatever the outcome, Justin Trudeau owns the Saudi Arabia military contract

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Canada’s largest ever advanced manufacturing export contract might get cancelled, and that may be the best outcome.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has said he’s looking into his options when it comes to a $15 billion light armoured vehicle deal between General Dynamics Land Systems in London, Ont. and the Saudi Arabian military.

The conundrum facing the federal government is whether to turn its back on the 12,000 jobs this contract creates, or to turn a blind eye to Saudi Arabia’s rampant human rights abuses.

This geopolitical Sophie’s Choice was entirely predictable when the deal was inked under the previous Conservative government.  Except now the stakes are no longer theoretical.

Irrespective of Trudeau’s tendency to virtue signal about human rights issues, whatever he decides to do or not do here will have real consequences.

If he cancels the contract, he’ll have an outcry from displaced workers on his hands.  If he doesn’t, he’ll look like a hypocrite on human rights and foreign policy.  Neither are particularly pleasant crosses to bear in an election year.

Trudeau’s indecision and lack of clarity on the issue will dog him.  I’ve gotten whiplash trying to keep up with the Liberals’ positions on it.

The Liberals didn’t really push back when the deal was announced in 2014.  Trudeau never uttered a word about it in the House of Commons.  No one did until more than a year later, when Marc Garneau asked the Harper government for assurances that LAVs wouldn’t be used against civilians.

When the Liberals were in power, then-Foreign Affairs Minister Stéphane Dion first said he wouldn’t intervene in the affairs of a private business before changing his tune to say his hands were tied because it was a contract approved by the earlier Conservative government.

But then he personally signed the export permits despite having no obligation to do so.  It was a move the Globe and Mail said amounted to the Liberals taking “full ownership of the decision, which they once said they were unable to stop.”

Trudeau’s own stance is just as confusing.  This March, he defended the deal.

“Permits are only approved if the exports are consistent with our foreign and defence policies, including human rights,” he said in an interview.  “Our approach fully meets our national obligations and Canadian laws.”

But after the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, Trudeau reverted to blaming the Conservatives.

“The contract signed by the previous government makes it very difficult to suspend or leave that contract,” he said to CBC.

Trudeau has changed his tune again, saying he’s thinks there’s a way out, but it may cost taxpayers $1 billion.

For the last few years it’s been a coin toss as to whether the Liberals support this deal any given day.

While the government reviews the agreement, Trudeau has said no more exports will be approved.  This decision, while temporary, proves the government’s past claims of powerlessness have been falsehoods.

Even so, Trudeau is between a rock and a hard place now.  London’s two Liberal MPs have made jobs their priority on the issue, though are clear to stress the final decision is Trudeau’s.

It’s a lot harder to kiss away thousands of jobs than it would have been for the Conservatives to not approve the deal in the first place.  I’m not one for government to tell private companies who they can do business with, but defense contractors are in a unique category.

Such an impasse was inevitable because Saudi human rights violations are not new.  It’s strange that Khashoggi’s murder was the bridge too far for Trudeau.

Barbaric as it was, it’s really a blip in the grand scheme of Saudi Arabia’s derelictions, which range from executions to imprisonment of political dissidents to diminishing personal freedoms.

It’s not as black and white as jobs versus morals though.  Reprehensible as Saudi Arabia’s record is, the country is a far more stable ally than others in the region.  Being friendly —even if mired by a layer of distrust — with the Saudis is important when you look at nations like Iran.

I certainly feel this dynamic has shaped the American response to the Khashoggi murder.

I have less patience for the argument put forth by many of the contract’s defenders that if we don’t arm the Saudis, someone else will.  While it’s true that someone else will fulfill the contract, that is no excuse for complicity if we as a country choose to draw a line in the sand.

We can’t claim to be moral leaders — as Trudeau does — while arming the Saudis.  Cancelling the deal wouldn’t tell Saudi Arabia how to conduct itself; it would just aver that Canada won’t be a part of how. 

Andrew Lawton is a fellow at the True North Initiative and a Loonie Politics columnist.

More from Andrew Lawton     @andrewlawton

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