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Continental missile defence debate back for an encore

by Tim Harper (feat. David Perry)

The Star
April 25, 2016

OTTAWA—It was barely a decade ago, but much of the emotional debate on both sides of the border over Canada’s participation in a North American missile defence program seems already forgotten.

It was an issue that pivoted on matters of Canadian sovereignty, bilateral relations and the weaponization of space, but for the prime minister of the day, Paul Martin, the decision to stay out of the American program was really about the toxicity of the U.S. president of the day, George W. Bush.

Will things be different in 2017? The debate over continental ballistic missile defence is back for an encore.

Almost from the moment Martin snubbed Bush’s overtures, defence officials in this country have been working to get the question back on the agenda.

Now Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan has tossed out ballistic missile defence as something he wants Canadians to pronounce on as part of a review of defence policy.

A public consultation paper from the defence department says “given the increase in the number of countries with access to ballistic missile technology and their potential to reach North America, this threat is expected to endure and grow more sophisticated in the coming decades.’’

Is it time to revisit the 2005 decision, the paper asks, and would it provide greater Canadian security and better continental co-operation?

This is not the Trudeau government blue-skying, although a spokesperson for Sajjan says the minister is merely open to a public discussion on the issue.

Almost two years ago, a Senate committee recommended Canadian participation in a North American missile defence program. It had the unanimous backing of both Liberal and Conservative senators, but the Conservative government of Stephen Harper did not move on the recommendations.

The U.S. has a long list of missile defence partners, a list that includes the United Kingdom, Japan, Australia, Israel, Denmark, Germany, Poland and Italy.

But this is an American program and it is operated by U.S. military personnel in its Pacific, Japanese and European command.

Canada backs the NATO missile defence program, but has resisted U.S. entreaties for continental co-operation.

The Canadian concern is no different than Washington’s concern — it is the unstable and unsettling North Korean leadership and its military capabilities.

But the political equation on this continent is much different than 2005.

Then, Bush was neck-deep in a mess in Iraq. Martin had a minority. The two countries were dealing with the fallout of the Chrétien government’s decision to stay out of Iraq and Bush had already cancelled one trip to Canada after members of the Liberal caucus broke an unspoken agreement that if Ottawa stayed out of Bush’s coalition, they would at least keep their mouths shut about the American foray.

When Bush finally visited Ottawa, the two sides had also agreed Bush would not publicly raise the question of missile defence. He promptly broke that agreement, and he was accused of trying to bully Martin (denied by Ottawa) into joining the agreement.

The atmosphere could not have been more poisonous and two months after bidding Bush adieu at Uplands Airport, Martin formally decided against Canadian participation.

“There is hope that we could have a better debate and understanding of the issue this time around,’’ says David Perry, senior defence analyst at the Canadian Global Affairs Institute.

“The view of the Obama government is drastically different here than was the perception of the Bush administration then.’’

There are practical questions — the cost, the lack of a credible threat against Canada, and questions over the efficiency of the American plan which has cost Washington $100 billion over the past 10 years. There is also the overarching question of whether we should be allowing our security to be dictated out of Washington.

But there is little or no prospect this could get done before Obama leaves office and, again, political considerations will weigh heavy.

A Democrat in the White House will be much easier for Justin Trudeau to deal with on questions such as these, but a Republican — Donald Trump or Ted Cruz — will be a wild card.

Both Cruz and Trump have said they would rein in the bloated Pentagon budget, but Cruz has also said he would acquire 12 ballistic missile-launching submarines.

Trump’s views haven’t been clearly laid out.

More crucially, Trudeau cannot be expected to embrace a military plan backed by either Republican. Anything that smacks of a surrender of Canadian sovereignty to Trump would not fly here.

And the military advisers may find themselves again buffeted by the heavy weather of political reality.

 


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