Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Two leaders, three issues, one alliance

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SOME commentators say that the meeting between Prime Minister Stephen Harper and United States President Barack Obama on Wednesday was some kind of sop from the U.S. leader to his Canadian acolyte, that there was no real reason for the meeting to take place other than for Americans to placate their northern neighbours.

That's a popular theme among Canadian Liberals and New Democrats, but it is also clearly wrong. The stark truth is that no Democratic president has ever cared enough about Canada to give it, gratuitously, such a gift, not even Mr. Obama, who frequently expresses, even stresses, his admiration for this country. There was business to be discussed between both countries, and there was some business done, at least as much business as usually gets done on such occasions.

It is true that there were no historic accomplishments that emerged from the meeting. It lasted more than an hour, rather than the exact 42 minutes Mr. Obama had set aside for it, if that means anything, and three major Canada-U.S. concerns were addressed.

One was energy. The so-called "dirty oil" from Alberta's tarsands remains much on the American president's mind as an ill-conceived election promise, but his alternative is to burn even dirtier coal, so Canada may have an advantage here, even though the Democratic left on which Mr. Obama depends is resolutely anti-Canadian on this.

The second is trade and how "Buy American" provisions written into American federal policy conflict with the free trade agreement. Mr. Obama correctly points out that it was Canadian provinces and municipalities that chose to keep the Buy Canadian option when the FTA was signed, so the U.S. holds the high ground there. The president, however, was also careful to emphasize the importance that the U.S. government places on the trade agreement and that it has no intention of jeopardizing it. Unfortunately, once again his ill-conceived campaign promise to review the trade agreement haunts him still.

The most important point, however, is Afghanistan. Canada's position is clear, even if the Americans don't like it -- this country will quit its combat role in 2011, although it will not quit Afghanistan. Mr. Harper made it clear that we would be there in a reconstructive role for some time to come. Canadians can defend that because Ottawa's position has been laid out not only by the government but also by the opposition parties. There is no ambiguity here.

What is not clear, and is of great concern, is what the U.S. role in Afghanistan will be. Mr. Obama flits and flutters on what America will do there -- will he send more troops, will he step down -- and that makes Canada and other NATO allies nervous, not to mention the tension it creates within Afghanistan itself.

These three topics -- energy, trade and war -- constitute a tendentious troika of interlocking issues between two allies that are perhaps more closely linked now than at any other time in contemporary history.

The two do not appear to have agreed on much, except that they are inseparable allies. President Obama, as one might expect from the most powerful politician in the world, made his country's position clear. Prime Minister Harper made it equally clear that Canada is an equal partner in this relationship. This great alliance can only be better and stronger for that.

Editorials are the consensus view of the Winnipeg Free Press’ editorial board, comprising Gerald Flood, Catherine Mitchell, David O’Brien and Paul Samyn.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition September 17, 2009 A12

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