OTTAWA (AP) - President Barack Obama courted warmer relations
with America's snowy northern neighbor Thursday, declining to ask
war-weary Canada to do more in Afghanistan, promising he won't
allow a protectionist creep into U.S. trade policy and talking
reassuringly around thorny energy issues.
Obama-happy crowds cheered Obama's seven-hour visit, his first
outside U.S. borders as president, and he returned the compliment
with a quick stop at an indoor market where he delighted
shopkeepers by picking up pastries and souvenirs for his daughters.
"I love this country and think that we could not have a better
friend and ally," Obama said as he appeared side-by-side with
Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper at gothic Parliament Hill.
He later slipped slightly as he walked to his plane and joked that
the weather reminded him of Chicago.
Harper in turn rolled out the red carpet for the new U.S.
president. The Conservative leader had been close to President
George W. Bush, personally and on policy. But he made clear with
subtle jabs backward that he was casting his and his country's lot
now with the vastly more popular Obama.
"As we all know, one of President Obama's big missions is to
continue world leadership by the United States of America, but in a
way that is more collaborative," Harper said, an apparent
reference to Bush's go-it-alone diplomatic style.
Still, rhetorical niceties aside, there are some sharp
differences between the U.S. and its largest trading partner and
biggest supplier of oil. On several topics, where Obama came armed
with reassurances, Harper offered mini-lectures, albeit gently
On the 7-year-old Afghanistan war, for instance, the Canadian
leader said that NATO and U.S. forces fighting a resurgent Taliban
insurgency are not "through our own efforts going to establish
peace and security in Afghanistan." With Obama's administration
undertaking a broad review of the U.S. strategy there, Harper
suggested that any new policy "have the idea of an end date, of a
transition to Afghan responsibility for security, and to greater
Western partnership for economic development."
On Canada's massive oil-rich tar sands, Harper suggested that
the kind of emissions regulations that environmentalists would like
Obama to support would be unfair, making a comparison to the U.S.
coal industry. "It's very hard to have a tough regulatory system
here when we are competing with an unregulated economy south of the border," Harper said.
On trade, Obama stuck to his pledge to eventually seek changes
in the 1994 North American Free Trade Agreement to increase
enforcement of labor and environmental standards - but said he
intended to do so in a way "that is not disruptive to the
extraordinarily important trade relationships that exist between
the United States and Canada."
Harper said he might be willing to negotiate, but not by
"opening the whole NAFTA and unraveling what is a very complex
He sounded a similar warning on a "Buy American" clause that
Congress added to the $787 billion economic stimulus package. The
provision's passage fits into a larger fear among free-trading
Canadians that America is cultivating a protectionist streak as its
economy tanks and hemorrhages jobs.
"We expect the United States to adhere to its international
obligations," Harper said. "I can't emphasize how important it is
that we do that."
Another point of contention is the post-Sept. 11 security
enhancements required by the U.S. along the two country's borders
that have made crossings more arduous. Harper suggested no one
needed to teach Canada lessons on that score: "Not only have we,
since 9/11, made significant investments in security and security
along our border, the view of this government is unequivocal:
Threats to the United States are threats to Canada."
Obama repeatedly took a non-confrontational approach.
On trade, he declared that he had told Harper: "I want to grow
trade and not contract it."
On Afghanistan, Obama said unprompted that he had not asked the
prime minister for any more Canadian commitments. Just a handful of
nations, including Canada, are doing the heavy lifting there by
fighting in the country's dangerous southern and eastern provinces.
Canada, which has lost more than 100 people in Afghanistan, is
withdrawing its 2,500 combat forces out of the volatile south by
"We just wanted to make sure that we were saying thank you,"
The president announced earlier this week that he is sending
17,000 more U.S. troops to Afghanistan to augment the 33,000
already there. It was just over half the increase that U.S.
commanders have requested, and Obama left the door open to
additional increases once the strategy review is finished in late
On the oil sands issue, Obama probably scored points with his
hosts by linking the environmental problems of the Canadian
industry with those in the U.S. coal industry.
Industry officials estimate the northern Alberta sands could
yield as much as 175 billion barrels of oil, making Canada second
only to Saudi Arabia in crude oil reserves. But the extraction
process produces a high amount of the greenhouse gases blamed for
climate change. Environmental groups want Obama to resist Harper's
efforts to exempt them from regulation.
Obama instead focused on the idea of developing carbon capture
and storage to help turn the sands into a clean source of power, a
largely unproven and not yet cost-effective technology that would
bury harmful emissions underground.
The topic was the only one to produce an announcement, though a
minor one. The leaders said they had decided to begin a new
clean-energy dialogue to advance carbon-reduction technologies and
the development of a modern electric grid.
Presidents send signals with their choices of their maiden
international trips, and by coming here Obama meant to show that
energy and Afghanistan are at the top of his list.
But with the U.S. economy in free fall, he chose not to make a
long visit, not even staying for dinner.
The Canadian public didn't seem to care, with many spending
hours on buses to come to the snowy capital in hopes of just a
glimpse. The crowd of many hundreds that had started gathering at 4
a.m. in the square outside Parliament erupted in a deafening cheer
when the U.S. leader waved for a moment from behind a partition
before disappearing inside with Harper. Along his motorcade route,
a woman held up a "Yes We Canada" sign, a playful reference to
Obama's campaign motto.
There was one small Obama slip. During his joint appearance with
Harper, Obama started out by remarking his great pleasure at being
in what he clearly started to say was "Iowa." He quickly
corrected himself to say "Ottawa."
The day afforded Obama his first experience with many of the
pomp-filled ingredients of a presidential journey abroad.
With a light snow falling at the airport, a double line of Royal
Canadian Mounted Police in their bright red coats stood at
attention. Obama was greeted by the representative of Britain's
Queen Elizabeth II, Michaelle Jean, who took him inside the
terminal for a brief discussion. Obama later met in the same room
at the end of his visit with Liberal opposition leader Michael
Ignatieff. Throughout his visit, American flags fluttered alongside