Don't Blame Canada for Missile-Defense Snub

Article excerpt

The Liberal Party government of Prime Minister Paul Martin in Canada told the Bush administration last week that it will not endorse the US plan for national missile defense.

Many are viewing this as a slap in the face from Ottawa to Washington, and a change in the position Canada seemed to be taking a year ago. They expect it to poison relations between the two neighbors - ensuring, among other things, that next month's three- way summit with Mexican President Vicente Fox will fail to make progress in broadening NAFTA. It would seem that the knee-jerk liberal Canadians just could not get over their nostalgia for the ABM Treaty, as well as their visceral dislike of missile-defense systems.

This interpretation is badly mistaken. The Bush administration made major diplomatic errors in handling this topic with Canada. It asked for blanket endorsement of an open-ended US missile defense program, rather than for specific help with specific technical challenges and defensive weapons. This was a fundamental mistake, and the US has mostly itself to blame for the resulting fallout.

The problem really began in late fall. Shortly after gaining reelection on the strength of a campaign in which he spoke plainly and forthrightly to the American people about national security, President Bush took the same attitude up north. Although he'd promised beforehand not to bring it up, during a state visit to Ottawa Mr. Bush nonetheless asked Prime Minister Martin to support US missile defense efforts.

On its face, the request probably struck Bush as eminently reasonable. After all, any system the US developed would protect Canada too, making it natural that Ottawa would offer at least minimal support and political blessing.

During the cold war, Canada cooperated with the US on air defense, making missile defense seem a natural successor. And Canada had recently agreed to cooperate with the US at the NORAD air defense command in Colorado, tracking not only traditional threats from aircraft but possible missile launches against North America as well.

But Canadians, who have followed the American missile defense debate closely since Ronald Reagan's "star wars" Strategic Defense Initiative, did not hear Bush's request in such innocuous terms. They know what is in the Pentagon's long-term plan for missile defense systems. It isn't simply a pragmatic and modest defense against possible North Korean or Iranian threats, of the type now being deployed in California and Alaska. Although not yet formalized, it also envisions the possibility of a land-based and sea-based system that might be large enough to challenge China's deterrent (and even make some Russians nervous). And perhaps most controversial of all, it speaks of space weapons - be they small interceptor missiles or lasers to shoot down threats from wherever they might be launched.

These concepts remain red-flag topics in the great white north. …