In their post-September11 preoccupation with the war on terrorism, Americans have tended to overlook the reality that Canada continues to be our most strategically important ally. We share a 4,000 mile border with this northern neighbor.
While President George Bush consults regularly with Britain's Prime Minister, Tony Blair, and Vice President Dick Cheney tours the Middle East to build support among Arab states for dealing with Iraq, the administration's point man for consultations with Canada is Tom Ridge, the former Governor of Pennsylvania. He is the White House's Director of Homeland Security. But President Bush and Prime Minister Jean Chretien have not met regularly to discuss the war in Afghanistan and the coming confrontation with Saddam Hussein's regime in Baghdad? Why?:
For most of the past thirty-five years Canada has been governed by left-of-center governments headed by the Liberal Party. During the 1970s and into the 1980s, the party was led by the flamboyant Pierre Trudeau, a brilliant lawyer from Montreal who was obsessed, many thought, by a determination to make Canada different from the United States -- politically, culturally, and militarily. He drastically cut Canada's armed forces and merged them into one organization. He forced all military personnel to wear the same uniform!
When the Conservatives came to power in 1985, Prime Minister Brian Mulroney reversed Trudeau's arms-length attitude toward Washington and built a close working relationship with Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H. Bush. He pushed for a U.S.-Canada Free Trade Pact, approved in 1988, and he joined Washington in expanding this arrangement to include Mexico, known as NAFTA (North American Free Trade Agreement), in 1993. Unlike Trudeau, Mulroney didn't fear forging a close working relationship with Washington as this greatly benefited Canada economically. He also gave favorable attention to Canada's armed forces.
When the Liberals returned to power in 1993, Jean Chretien became prime minister and decided to concentrate on domestic affairs, including measures to bolster the declining national health care system. Further cuts in Canada's defense budget were instituted. Still, Canadian forces participated with NATO in Bosnia and Kosovo and collaborated with the United States in 1994 in stabilizing the security situation in Haiti.
Canadian Armed Forces today are embarrassingly small when compared with other NATO countries. The total is 55,000 personnel in its army, navy, and air force. Although Ottawa plans to increase this to 75,000 in the next several years, Canada's current contribution to NATO's efforts in the Balkans and to Allied deployments in Afghanistan are hampered by the small size of its forces and the lack of airlift capability.
Canada has nearly 1000 forces operating with U.S. troops near Kandahar in southern Afghanistan and has stationed half dozen ships in the Arabian Sea to help prevent Al-Qaida terrorists from escaping by sea. About 500 tough Canadian special forces are operating with American and other Allied fighters trained in mountain warfare to root out remnants of Al-Qaida dug into the mountains of eastern Afghanistan.
Early this month a committee of Canada's senate, headed by Senator Colin Kenney, recommended an increase in the defense budget of $4 billion (Canadian) and expansion of the forces. He told a news conference that this increase was needed "to enable Canada to be an effective member of forces against global terrorism." The question Canadian skeptics ask is whether such a modest increase can accomplish that objective.
One reason Canada allowed its forces, especially the army and the navy, to become nearly inconsequential as part of the country's role in NATO is that it lives under the protection of the United States. As a result, Canada over the past thirty years mandated a largely non-combat role for its military and was one of the major contributors to United Nations peacekeeping missions around the world. The public showed little objection to focusing its military on cooperation with the United Nations and saw this as a way of building Canada's image abroad as peacekeepers instead of warriors.
Last month Canada's troops in Afghanistan came under criticism from leftist politicians and commentators because the Canadians turned over captured Al-Qaida prisoners to the Americans for transport to the Guantanamo detention center in Cuba. They protested against complying with American regulations regarding prisoners.
President Bush suggested in the weeks after September 11 that Canada should tighten its immigration laws to prevent potential terrorists from entering Canada and then coming to the United States. Prime Minister Chretien commented that his country had long been open to refugees and immigrants from other countries and did not plan to change its laws because of suggestions from Washington.
Although this view played well with Canadian nationalists, the Prime Minister was criticized by other Canadians who agreed that the country needed to tighten its laws. This view gained acceptance when U.S. immigration officers at border crossings began intensive searches of vehicles entering the United States and caused severe disruptions to trucks and passenger cars headed south.
Recently, Ottawa joined most European and Arab governments in distancing themselves from President Bush's tough talk about confronting Iraq's "evil" regime over its secret efforts to build weapons of mass destruction. As reported in the Globe and Mail ("Iraq? Not So Fast," February 19), Prime Minister Chretien stated: "The production of unacceptable armaments in Iraq is a problem that is under the authority of the United Nations, and it is completely different than the problem of terrorism."
Globe and Mail columnist Lysiane Gagnon, had pointed comments on the sad state of Canada's military on February 25 ("No More Mr. Nice Soldier"). She wrote:
"Canada wants the Maple Leaf to fly in Afghanistan, but doesn't want to pay its way. It wants an army, but not the war; glory, but no risk. Canada want to engage in nice compassionate actions, but would rather run away from the ugly tasks: No confrontation, no exchange of fire, no prisoners!" She concluded: "Our brave young soldiers don't deserve to be the laughingstock of the world. Let's put an end to this comedy: Recall our troops from abroad and put them on standby for the next snowstorm in Toronto."
As one who has worked in Canada and admires the Canadian people, I regret that the post-September 11 mood of seriousness which now characterizes the U.S. government and public is not yet matched north of our border. Hopefully, Washington and Ottawa will build on the good work being done by Governor Ridge and Deputy Prime Minister Manley on the Homeland Security front and initiate regular consultation among our nation's top leaders, as seen last week when Prime Minister Chretien conferred with President Bush in Washington.
File last modified on Thursday, 13-AUG-2004 07:00 PM EST