Obama's trip to the north


OTTAWA — U.S. President Barack Obama made clear this week that he wants his visit to Ottawa Thursday to turn the page on what has been a relatively unproductive period in Canada-U.S. relations.

“Look, I think that Canada is one of the most impressive countries in the world, the way it has managed a diverse population, a migrant economy. You know, the natural beauty of Canada is extraordinary,” Obama said in an interview Tuesday with the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation.

The only thing he left out was some effusive praise for Canada’s public healthcare system, but other than that, he pushed all the right buttons to win the hearts of Canadians frustrated with the apparent indifference of the Bush administration.

“Obviously there is enormous kinship between the United States and Canada, and the ties that bind our two countries together are things that are very important to us,” Obama concluded.

In an instant, Obama resurrected Canada’s image, taking it from the Bush/Cheney view of Canada as America's gas tank to an era in which Canada is a capable partner in economic, environmental and security matters.

“And, you know, one of the things that I think has been striking about Canada is that in the midst of this enormous economic crisis, I think Canada has shown itself to be a pretty good manager of the financial system in the economy in ways that we haven't always been here in the United States,” he said. “I think that's important for us to take note of, that it's possible for us to have a vibrant banking sector, for example, without taking some of the wild risks that have resulted in so much trouble on Wall Street.”

Wow, suddenly even Canada’s bankers are  a source of national pride.

He told Canadians that he understands and appreciates that Canada’s military has borne a heavier load in Afghanistan than most of the NATO partners, something that has been a divisive issue in Canadian politics.

“I think the Canadian contribution has been extraordinary, and for all the families who have borne the burden in Canada, I think we all have a heartfelt thanks,” he said, adding that he respects parliament’s decision to pull Canadian soldiers out of combat positions in 2011. He left the door open to asking Canada to reconsider, but not without a clearer sense of mission.

“But I am absolutely convinced that you cannot solve the problem of Afghanistan, the Taliban, the spread of extremism in that region solely through military means. We're going to have to use diplomacy, we're going to have to use development, and my hope is that in conversations that I have with Prime Minister Harper, that he and I end up seeing the importance of a comprehensive strategy, and one that ultimately the people of Canada can support," Obama said.

“I think, you know, we've got until 2011, according to the Canadian legislature, and I think it's important for the Canadian legislature and the people of Canada to get a sense that what they're doing is productive,” he added.

The ball is now clearly in the court of Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper, who will have to show Thursday that he not only welcomes Obama’s goodwill, but is eager to work with him on a variety of issues.

In the longer term, the sudden change in tone of Canada-U.S. diplomacy presents an unexpected challenge for the Harper government.

For the past eight years, managing the Canada-U.S. relationship has been easy for Canadian prime ministers, as most Canadian voters wanted Canada to keep its distance. Now, given Obama’s almost unprecedented popularity and his overtures for a closer partnership, Harper could face a tricky challenge of trying to maintain Canadian autonomy in the face of a  message that many Canadians welcome.

As for Thursday's visit: On the agenda is the consummate business trip. There will be a quick morning commute to Ottawa, a visit with Harper and select parliamentarians, a press conference, a brief meeting with U.S. Embassy staff, and then back to Washington and home for supper.

No address to Parliament, no state dinner, and no Michelle.

It's a bare-bones whistle-stop visit, but his administration is counting on it being enough to lift the tenor of relations between two strong and interdependent neighbors.

During George W. Bush's presidency, relations between the two countries suffered after a series of gaffes.

In his address to Congress following the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Bush thanked more than 20 countries for their messages of support but failed to acknowledge Canadians for their response, which included providing safe harbor to passengers on more than 200 transcontinental flights who were left stranded when the U.S. closed its airspace. Bush never publicly refuted false claims made by members of his own administration and conservative pundits that some of the terrorists had entered the U.S. from Canada. And he repeatedly referred to Britain as the U.S.'s closest ally.

In April 2002, Bush showed little remorse after four Canadian soldiers on a nighttime training exercise in Afghanistan were killed by a bomb dropped from a U.S. F-16, the pilot of which claimed that the Canadians fired at his plane.

In the run-up to the Iraq war, the Bush administration used an unprecedented diplomatic full-court press to pressure Canada, already a key partner in the war in Afghanistan, to join in the invasion of Iraq.

Bush did ultimately did reach out to Canada, visiting in late 2004 after securing his second term He even went to Halifax to thank those Canadian communities that welcomed the diverted passengers in the days after 9/11. But Canadians saw it as too little, far too late. To make matters worse, Bush's reelection had many moderate and secular Canadians questioning whether they still had much in common with their American friends and business partners.

As in much of the world, Obama's election has done much to restore the goodwill and sense of common purpose shared by Canadians and Americans. By making Canada his first stop, Obama is signaling that he values Canada as a friend and neighbor, a feeling that he can be confident will be reciprocated.

While the visit is largely symbolic, there is some real business to be discussed. Topping the list will be the future of the North American economy, especially the financial sector, manufacturing industries, energy security and trade. The latter is suddenly a hot topic for many Canadians after U.S. congressional leaders earlier this month tried to include "buy American" provisions on federal spending related to the stimulus package, a clear violation of the spirit of the North American Free Trade Agreement.

The White House cautiously denounced the protectionist measures and the provisions were later watered down, but Canadian business leaders remain unnerved by the prospect of the costly legal battles these measures would ignite.

The two leaders are also likely to discuss integrated security, Obama's commitment to devoting greater military attention to Afghanistan and the closing of the Guantanamo Bay detention center.