Canadians disliked him, but George Bush has been very good toward this country
LUIZA CH. SAVAGE
“Hope you lose, eh," shouted the cover of this magazine when U.S. President George W. Bush ran for re-election in 2004. The poll behind the headline suggested that only 15 per cent of Canadians would have voted for Bush if they had the chance. These days, perhaps because Bush is pursuing more multilateral diplomacy and lavishing billions on AIDS in Africa, America’s image has improved in 11 out of 23 countries recently surveyed by the BBC. Yet Canada remains one of only a handful of nations in which the poll showed perceptions of the U.S. have actually gotten worse. Even self-described conservatives in Canada want change: they prefer that a Democrat replace Bush by a 2:1 margin, according to a Canadian Press/Harris Decima poll released in January.
And yet. Before Canadians could start celebrating the end of the Bush era, the Democratic presidential candidates began threatening to use the possibility of withdrawal from NAFTA as a “hammer” to extract concessions from Canada and Mexico. Had it come from Bush, such talk would have been denounced as bullying. Coming from Hillary Rodham Clinton and Barack Obama, it was explained away as understandable political pandering, accompanied by knowing discussions of blue-collar politics. But this week, Clinton campaigned in Pennsylvania by calling NAFTA her husband’s “mistake,” and Obama retorted she’d taken too long to come to that conclusion.
Bush, meanwhile, was preparing to participate in his final trilateral meeting with Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Mexican President Felipe Calderón on April 21 and 22, as part of the so-called Security and Prosperity Partnership (SPP) dialogue he initiated at the request of his neighbours—despite the fact that many in his own party would rather wall their country off from the rest of the continent. It’s a mood that apparently extends
to the Democrats. While many Canadians cheered the election of a Democratic Congress in 2006, it has already shown a protectionist mood (derailing a trade deal with Colombia), has already produced legislation that could have turned into a trade irritant (threatening to curtail imports of Canadian oil), and is working on another that could (proposed legislation that would label food grown in Canada or Mexico as foreign.)
Given all that, could we possibly find ourselves missing a thing or two about George W. after he’s gone? Sure, many Canadians disapproved of his war in Iraq, his hefty tax cuts and deficit spending, his treatment of detainees. They winced at his talk of good and evil and frequent references to God. But when it came to bottom-line Canadian breadand-butter interests, things could have been much worse. Take that plain-spoken cowboy stubbornness. Simple-minded, perhaps. Or maybe not the worst quality when deployed in support of a Canada-U.S. trading relationship that encompasses 70 per cent of Canada’s exports and accounts for more than a quarter of Canada’s GDR The day after the Democratic candidates made their NAFTA comments in February, Bush responded. “The idea of just unilaterally withdrawing from a trade treaty because of trying to score political points is not good policy,” he said. “It’s not good policy on the merits, and it’s not good policy as a message to send to people who have, in good faith, signed a treaty.”
The political storm over the Canadian consulate’s attempted deconstruction of Obama’s trade policies—now the subject of a leak investigation—underscores that at least with Bush, there was no need for back-channel clarifications. “He is a person who is easy to deal with,” recalls former Liberal cabinet minister Anne McLellan, who has attended various meetings with the President. “There is no artifice. He tells you exactly where he is coming from. There are not a lot of surprises— and there are benefits to that.” McLellan credits Bush with constructive work with both Jean Chrétien and Paul Martin, despite the perception that relations had soured over Iraq and other disagreements.
Bush’s first ambassador to Canada, former Massachusetts governor Paul Cellucci, says reports of tensions were overblown. “The prime minister has to walk a bit of the tightrope—he has to be seen as having a good relationship but can’t be seen as having too close a relationship,” says Cellucci, who was amused by some negative reports. “They’d say the President didn’t invite the prime minister to the ranch or to Camp David. Well, I was in Monterrey when prime minister Martin had his first meeting with the President. The President said, ‘That was a good meeting. We’ve
got to get together again soon. Would you like to come to Camp David or to the ranch?’ And Paul Martin, realizing he had an election coming up, said, ‘Oh no, I’ll meet you at the White House.’ It was in their interest to keep it businesslike.” (When Martin eventually made it to the ranch, it was for a trilateral meeting with the Mexican president in tow.)
By the time Bush’s second ambassador, David Wilkins, arrived in the summer of2005, sweeping U.S. restrictions on Canadian beef in the wake of a limited mad cow disease outbreak were making Canadian headlines, though they barely registered with the broader
U.S. public. “It became clear to him that it was important to Canada and it was important to the relationship,” Wilkins recalls. “He felt it was important to get this irritant off the table.”
While the border was closed to live cattle, Bush personally pushed for an agreement to get it opened. When the U.S. cattlemen’s lobby obtained a court injunction, the President publicly supported opening the border, and his Justice Department filed legal documents in court.
Likewise, Wilkins insists that Bush’s involvement was crucial to finally reaching a softwood-lumber trade agreement in 2006 that has put that dispute on ice for at least seven years. “I got to witness first-hand the initial discussion in Cancún, when Prime Minister Harper made it clear it was the No. 1 pressing issue. The President got involved with his staff about asking the questions about how to get it resolved. Two months later, there was an agreement. This is an issue that was going on for decades and escaped many efforts to solve it,” Wilkins says.
Of course it helped that the U.S. home builders wanted a resolution to softwood, as
did U.S. slaughterhouses on cattle. But Rob Merrifield, a Conservative Alberta MP who co-chairs the Canada-United States Interparliamentary Group, says Bush deserves his share of credit in both cases. “It would have been easier for him to capitulate in certain areas. He could have slammed the door completely on [mad cow] and softwood lumber,” Merrifield says.
For better or worse, Bush has been the most consequential president for Canada since Ronald Reagan, argues Chris Sands, a Canada specialist at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington think
tank. (Before Reagan, Sands says, the previous was William Howard Taft, who left office in 1913.) “There aren’t many who do things that change the landscape of the relationship,” says Sands. After 9/11, Bush created the Department of Homeland Security, which spurred Canada to reorganize its own government and create the Department of Public Safety. He reorganized the defence of North
America into a Northern Command that prompted Ottawa to create its own Canada Command. And he launched the SPP when Canada and Mexico asked for more consultation and coordination over regulations.
The biggest remaining sticking point with Washington remains management of the Canada-U.S. land border. Efforts started off well with Tom Ridge, a former governor who worked closely with former Liberal foreign minister John Manley on a so-called “smart-border” accord, to ease traffic flows after the bottlenecks immediately following 9/ll.In2004,as part of a wider security bill, Congress passed the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative that would eventually require passports of all Americans returning to their country (given that a minority possessed passports, the rule threatened to hurt tourism to Canada and slow border crossings). “The WHTI was a congressional initiative that the President wasn’t really keen about,” claims Cellucci. Wilkins insists that in at least three meetings he attended, the President “constantly cautioned about using good common sense and to make sure that [regulations] are not over-burdensome to trade or travel.” Under Ridge’s successor, Michael Chertoff, the emphasis is perceived as having shifted more to enforcement than efficiency.
BUSH WANTED `GOOD COMMON SENSE' USED IN TRADE AND TRAVEL ISSUES
But Scotty Greenwood, executive director of the Canadian American Business Council, says Bush could have done more to improve border efficiency, including improving infrastructure and eliminating red tape such as new agricultural inspection fees. “There are a host of issues that make it more difficult to traverse the common border,” says Greenwood, who served as a chief of staff in the U.S. Embassy in Ottawa under Bill Clinton. “The Bush administration response on this stuff from an economic point of view has been underwhelming.”
Whatever Canadians conclude about the Bush years, it’s unlikely the man himself will lose sleep over it. Cellucci recalls accompanying Bush in his limousine during an Ottawa visit in 2004 when protesters lined the route. “He understood that a lot of people in Canada were not happy with the war in Iraq, that Canada is a more liberal country than the U.S. in general. He did not take offence,” Cellucci says. At the press conference he even thanked those Canadians who waved at him—especially those who did so “with all five fingers.” M
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