November 2014 Commentary

We Need to XL, but Quietly

by J. L. Granatstein

They’re our best friends, aren’t they? The Americans, that is. Or at least they used to be. But what is it with President Barack Obama and the Keystone XL pipeline?

“Understand what this project is,” the President said in an answer to a question at a press conference in Myanmar last week: “It is providing the ability of Canada to pump their oil, send it through our land, down to the Gulf, where it will be sold everywhere else. It doesn’t have an impact on U.S. gas prices.” Aside from the fact that the Canadian crude would be refined in Texas and some of it would be used in the United States, Obama’s anti-Canadian—or as he would see it, pro-American—approach is shocking in its negative tone. 

Certainly there are opponents of the XL Pipeline in the United States, with most of them found in the Democratic Party’s environmental wing. But there are Democrats who support the pipeline, at least one of them, Senator Mary Landrieu from Louisiana, facing a run-off election. Her chances decreased dramatically when the XL plan lost a Senate vote. The bill will be back in the new Congress, full of anti-Obama Republicans; Senator Landrieu probably won’t. Still, her efforts suggest a desperate attempt to win votes by standing against an unpopular President. 

So why does the President persist in flogging the Canadian pipeline horse? First, his duty is to protect American interests, not those of Canadians, and certainly not those of Alberta’s oil interests. Second, he is at base a liberal and an environmentalist who doesn’t care very much for the polluters and rich Republican oilmen (or rich Canadian ones). Third, he is genuinely concerned with climate change, even if he hasn’t done much to reduce its impact on the United States or the world. His “deal” with China to reduce emissions—someday in the far off never-never—is an indication of his good intentions. 

But finally, it appears that there is no love lost between Obama and Stephen Harper. It may be a “no brainer” to build the Keystone line, as the Prime Minister famously and foolishly said, but that unguarded comment went over like a lead balloon at the White House. President Obama, the Harvard grad, likes to believe that he is a progressive and a deep thinker, and no Canadian, and certainly no Conservative with a Canadian degree, can ever be in his intellectual league. (Even George W. Bush, with a Yale degree and a Harvard MBA, likely believed that.) That Harper’s Canada has largely and loyally supported Obama’s wobbly foreign policy in the Middle East and in Ukraine doesn’t appear to cut much ice. Superpowers aren’t ordinarily given to showing gratitude to their lessers. 

This is nothing new in Canada-US relations. For decades, Canadian officials knew that the way to get anything for Canada in the United States demanded good relations with the White House. Mackenzie King and Franklin Roosevelt weren’t bosom buddies, but King could strike deals, like the Hyde Park Agreement, that saved the Canadian economy during the Second World War. Lester Pearson and Lyndon Johnson might argue bitterly about the Vietnam War, but relations were still good enough that the Auto Pact could win LBJ’s assent in January, 1965. Jean Chretien, however, could get almost nothing from President Bush, and Harper certainly gets only the back of the hand from Obama. 

So if the White House is effectively closed to Ottawa, what do we do? First, remember that the Obama White House is less powerful than was FDR’s or LBJ’s. Obama is a lame duck leader, and power in both Houses of Congress come January is held by his very bitter opponents. The Administration still has great executive power, but the real locus of action now is in Congress. And Canadian Ambassadors in Washington, ever since Allan Gotlieb made this a priority thirty years ago, have worked hard to get Congress on side on issues of importance to Canadians. They will need to do this again, and even more so. But it can be fatal to Canadian interests if the embassy staff is seen as too close to the Republican majorities. The dysfunctional American system is surely heading for legislative gridlock again, and Canada simply cannot afford to be blamed for helping one party to prevail in this many-sided high stakes political game. 

Work the corridors of Congress, by all means. But be careful not to trumpet any successes too loudly. Even a badly wounded lame duck can still inflict damage. 

J.L. Granatstein is a Fellow of the Canadian Defence and Foreign affairs Institute.

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