TORONTO — He came, he waved, he said, I love you. He even asked for an artery-clogging BeaverTail pastry. And Canada swooned.
For a trip conceived as an exercise in symbolism over substance, U.S. President Barack Obama’s visit to Canada went according to plan. But the apparent coziness of the host and guest — and the willingness to gloss over policy differences — suggests a dose of vigilance would serve the new relationship well.
Canadians greeted Obama’s arrival with genuine joy and relief. Seeing him step off Air Force One on a wintry day in Ottawa was final proof for many that George W. Bush and his gang were indeed history.
It’s difficult to overstate the enmity most Canadians felt toward Bush and his policies of torture, rendition, climate change denial and the Iraq war. A top aide to Jean Chretien — the prime minister who refused to endorse the war — seemed to speak for the country at the time when she called Bush “a moron.”
Obama overcame all that last Thursday with his first wave hello. But it made his meeting with Canada’s charismatically challenged prime minister, Stephen Harper, all the more striking.
A fiercely partisan conservative who would have involved Canada in the war in Iraq if he had been prime minister at the time, Harper leads what some describe as the last Republican administration standing. So the fact that officials on both sides of the border insist Obama and Harper got along swimmingly is curious enough to give one pause.
Harper’s affinity for the Bush administration was one reason Canadians denied him a majority government in last fall’s election. His sudden embrace of Obama, as jarring as it may seem, makes sense politically. But some fear he’ll use Obama’s popularity as political cover for otherwise unpalatable policies.
On Afghanistan, Obama went out of his way to say he didn’t ask Harper to extend the combat mission of Canadian soldiers in Kandahar province beyond Canada’s 2011 deadline. But despite the president’s talk of diplomacy and development as central to a longterm solution of that conflict, Obama's immediate strategy is a surge in troops.
The betting in Canada is that Obama will eventually ask Harper to extend a combat mission that has dwindling support here. And Harper, whose minority government imposed the deadline due to pressure from the opposition, will likely oblige.
On climate change, the leaders agreed to a “clean-energy dialogue.” The name alone suggests it will amount to little more than talk for some time to come. Its emphasis isn’t the reduction of greenhouse gases produced while extracting coal in the United States, for example, or oil from the tar sands in Alberta. Instead, it will focus on developing technology to capture carbon dioxide and bury it underground — a largely unproven process that raises deep skepticism among Canadian environmentalists.
Canadian officials portray the dialogue deal as a first step to a possible harmonization of Canadian and American regulations to limit greenhouse gas emissions. That’s far from certain. More incredible was the way Harper — long denounced by critics as Bush’s Kyoto Protocol attack dog at international conferences — blamed the former president’s administration for his own government’s inaction on global warming.
Obama was more believable in describing climate change as one of the most pressing challenges of our time. Yet he took veiled swipes at the 1992 Kyoto Protocol by insisting a longterm solution needs to include China and India, which as developing countries were left out of the 1992 agreement. He also pointedly refused to describe oil from Alberta’s tar sands, which the United States imports, as “dirty oil,” a term he used often during his election campaign.
Stripped of rhetoric, Obama and Harper have similar climate change policies: Both would take greenhouse gas emissions back to 1990 levels by 2020 — well short of the Kyoto target. Yet once pilloried by environmentalist as a climate change denier, Harper has suddenly found himself some cover under Obama’s popularity.
Scrutiny wasn’t the order of the day. The tone was set on the eve of Obama’s visit, when the president granted Canada’s CBC news network a 10-minute interview.
As Obama’s aides monitored the clock, anchor Peter Mansbridge could have used his last question to ask about America’s dispute of Canadian sovereignty over a strategic waterway in the Arctic. He could have asked whether Obama would apologize for the U.S. rendition to torture in Syria of an innocent Canadian, or about the continued detention in Guantanamo of Canadian Omar Khadr, arrested as a child soldier in Afghanistan in 2002.
Instead, he wondered when Obama would attend his first hockey game and asked the president for his impressions of Canada. Predictably, Obama served up a plate full of praise, a prelude to his “I love this country” statement the next day. It’s arguably what Canadians wanted to hear, and many considered it enough for a first visit.
But as the relationship develops under new U.S. management, let’s hope it’s the last free ride Obama and Harper get.
Read more GlobalPost dispatches from Canada: