Risky agenda for Obama Canada trip

Tough talks on Afghan troops and trade in Obama’s first official foreign trip.

canada barack obama US president visit ottawa foreign visit
More than 100 Canadian troops have been killed in the war in Afghanistan [AFP]

Barack Obama, just like four of the past seven US presidents, has chosen Canada as the venue for his first foreign trip as leader of the United States.

However, it is hard to imagine any previous US leader getting such an exuberant welcome.

In depth

Although he will only spend six hours in the country and make no public appearance, hundreds of young Canadians are planning to brave the cold just to watch his limousine whiz past.

“I guess there’s always the chance that you could see him wave or something, even if you only see the motorcade. That would be cool,” said Allison Dicesare, a university student skating along the Ottowa’s Rideau Canal on her way to the city’s Parliament Hill on Thursday to mark the occasion.

The new president enjoys rock-star popularity not only for his John F Kennedy-esque looks, but also for his promises to listen to the world and his pledges to start a hopeful new way of doing politics.

Popular president

He is also much loved for something he is not.

Obama’s popularity is in stark contrast
to that of Harper’s in Canada [Reuters]

“It would be hard to overstate the sea-change with regard to Canadian sentiment with regard to the White House since Bush left and Obama arrived,” says Paul Wells, a leading editorialist in Canada working at MacLean’s magazine.

“My magazine had a poll out last week showing he had 82 per cent approval ratings – compared to about 60 per cent he has in the United States.

“And at 82 per cent he is twice as popular as any Canadian politician among Canadians.”

There is even an Obama cafe in the Canadian city of Toronto; while in Ottawa, around the time of the US inauguration, you could buy a presidential variation on the city’s iconic hot pastry marketed as the “Beavertail”.

It was called the “Obama-tail’. It is almost unthinkable to imagine a “Harper-tail”, named after Stephen Harper, Canada’s embattled prime minster who currently leads a minority government.

Like George Bush, Harper is often accused of treating the media as a pesky, necessary evil, rather than as a tool to govern, reach the people and maybe change their lives.

Afghan challenges
But Obama’s challenge won’t be just not outshining his lacklustre host.

Many Canadians say now is the time for a diplomatic solution, for talking rather than trying to continue to fight a war [in Afghanistan] that is … failing”

Steven Staples, director of the Rideau Centre of International Affairs

He will need to sweep some differences aside, or finesse them somehow, for the warm Canadian welcome to last any longer than the giant, winter-only skating rink winding down the capital’s lovely Rideau canal.

The first difference is on the war in Afghanistan.

Obama wants Nato allies to provide more troops for the troubled mission there.

Since 2006, Canada’s soldiers have gone through some of the toughest fighting, in one of the toughest provinces (Kandahar), while many other Nato allies have invoked “caveats” to dodge firefights and deploy in less “Talibanised” parts of the country.

More than 100 Canadian soldiers have died there – a big number for this country, which has a small army and does not keep media cameras away from flag-draped coffins, as is the case in the US.

Steven Staples, the director of the Rideau Centre of International Affairs, says Canadians are wary.

“At this point, Canadians don’t want to extend our mission there [and] they don’t want to do get more involved in combat,” he says.

“Many Canadians say now is the time for a diplomatic solution, for talking rather than trying to continue to fight a war that is simply failing.”

In the run-up to this meeting, Canadian and American officials agreed to keep the question of more troop commitments off the table.

But since Canada is not scheduled to withdraw its soldiers until 2011, it will not be hard to postpone any disagreement over Afghanistan until later.

Trade wars

Canadians remain concerned that the US
stimulus package affects trade [Reuters]

And so Obama’s approach will likely be the punchline from a famous British comedy sketch: “Whatever you do, don’t mention the war.”

Another big issue both leaders will need to dance around is talk of another kind of war: One involving trade.

Obama’s $787bn stimulus package contains language about giving preferential treatment to US suppliers of construction material.

That language was watered down after the US’s trade partners expressed concerns.

But a recent poll suggest that more than 60 per cent of Canadians fear the stimulus package may lead to American protectionism and hurt their economy.

There’s an old saying in Canada that when the US economy sneezed, Canada’s caught a cold.

With the American economy hit with something like pneumonia now, there is great fear that Canada, despite its much healthier, go-slow banking sector, may fall seriously ill.

‘Dry run’ trip?

Obama’s first foreign trip is also a “dry run” for his entourage and diplomatic team, some of whom do not even have business cards yet.

Venturing north is seen as a safe way to test the messages and methods he will bring to the rest of the world.

But the new US president has enormous political capital here and it would take a major faux pas for him to squander it.

But given the popular support he has here – much of it born of relief that George Bush is now gone – that should not be a problem.

Source: Al Jazeera