January 21, 2005

Politics: The Ambassador's Bomb

On Sunday, January 9th, U.S. ambassador Paul Cellucci told Canadian Press that Canada will support the proposed millsile defence system familliarly known as "Star Wars", and will make such an announcement by the end of March after the Liberal Party national convention. "We've been told that it will be dealt with over the next couple of months," he told CP. So why should this be news of any sort? A couple of reasons spring to mind.

First? It doesn't work. A little history:

The Pentagon spends about $10 billion dollars anually on the system first proposed by President Ronald Regan in 1983, and has installed 10 of the land based missiles in the western States (Arkansas) as of November 2004, and yet somehow it just never... quite... manages to do what was promised. The biggest success rate so far has been a theoretical kill rate of 62% - not too bad, until you consider that all the target missiles had homing beacons attached. Plus, of course, the thought of 38 nuclear missiles landing for every 100 launched at you.

When President Regan proposed the Strategic Defence Initive, a law was shortly announced stopping the deployment of weapon systems that don't work. So how did this get through? Because North Korea is going to launch nukes at America any day now. No, really: that was the logic Donald Rumsfeld used to have the law waived and the missiles installed. It was so urgent that current President George W. Bush even promised to have the system up and running by the end of 2004. And they haven't worked since. In 2002, for instance, one kill vehicle failed to seperate from its booster. This, the Missile Defence Agency said, didn't affect the programs "success rate" because the missile never got to "endgame". If it didn't reach "endgame", it didn't fail.

I've always defined failure as something that didn't work. Goes to show you what I know.

In December 2004, the latest test, the intercept missile failed to launch at all. The missile would work, the MDA said, if nothing went wrong. Well, yeeeeessss, but each of these tests is costing $85 million dollars, and frankly something has gone wrong a whole lot more than gone right during these tests. But we can relax now, because Secretary Rumsfeld has delayed a decision on the missile system, citing a lack of any long-range missile threat.

So, again: why is this news? The second reason:

It's news because this is an extremely contriversial issue in Canada: there has never been a national poll showing a majority of Candians supporting the missile defence system. And the ruling party is sitting on a minority government. That in and of itself is no big deal as Canada has had several minority governments in its history. Where it gets interesting is when you consider who the ruling party is, and who the replacement party would be. Pat Buchanan called Canada "Soviet Canuckistan" for a reason: politically it is way, WAY to the left of the U.S. A few years back, the leader of the Conservative Party was the grand marshall of the annual Gay Pride parade in Calgary, despite the fact that he was not himself gay. Did I mention being somewhat to the left?

Anyhow, what was then a populist protest party (the Reform Party) on the political right has since taken over the Conservatives: they are more religous, more inclined to private health care, and much closer to the current political realities in the U.S. than national politics in Canada usually are. (A noteable exception would be the bizzare Mulroney/Regan era sing-alongs, but Mulroney saw his approval ratings drop into single digits before he jumped ship, so let's move along...) They are the only party to the political Right in Canada, with the Liberals being Centre-Left, the New Democratic Party being seriously Left, and the Green Party being Over There Some Where.

The point being: Ambassador Cellucci deliberately raised a contentous issue in a very dismissive way. "It will be dealt with"? That's talk from an ambassador, directly to the press? This is an issue that can bring down the current ruling party, whom the Republicans have never been very comfortable with, and force another election placing a far more conservative government in place. The President is leaning heavily on Prime Minister Martin for approval of what is essentially a government make-work program in the missile defence system. Why should that be important? It cuts a bit of moral high ground from the political left in the U.S., who have been using Canada as an example of much of what they want (religon out of political decisions; acceptance of gay rights; single-payer health care; some form of gun control; whatever else, hell, make something up and say it's Up North!), while at the same time having a political party more closely linked with its own ideals running what is the U.S.' most important trading partner.

So what will Canada lose if it doesn't support this nearly obsolete method of national defence? Well, while Canada is the U.S.'s biggest trading partner (despite President Bush's earlier belief that it was Mexico), the U.S. is also Canada's biggest trading partner, and a population of 30 million will lose out to a population of 300 million every time. As far as economic clout goes, the U.S. has a lot more than Canada does. There are already perpetual leagal arguements over softwood lumber tariffs, which have been to court over a dozen times now with the U.S. losing each time. Likewise the closure of beef imports, the occasional spats over fishing... The only thing Canada has is a trump card: energy. When deregulation of energy companies in California led to rolling blackouts and brown outs in that state, British Columbia had enough energy reserves from hydro electricity plants to help. In addition to processed energy, Canada is the major supplier to the U.S. of oil and uranium, two big energy sources, but placing embargos on any of these would be crippling on both sides of the border, and Canada would be very reluctant to use those as bargaining chips. A Phyrric victory at best. Then there is NORAD, which would certainly see less of Canada's influence.

So what could Canada lose if it does support the Defense Against North Korea? Certainly money, as the White House has already said that they're dropping $5 billion from the program over the next six years, and they'd love Canada to pick that up. There is international status: Canada does still have some influence in world opinion, though there has been a reluctance to back that up with our once-vaunted peacekeeping missions, and military spending is shockingly low for what the Canadian Forces are asked to do. And, of course, there could be a change of government.

What can Canada gain by supporting the current U.S. administration? No one knows, but given the "more stick than carrot" approach to international relations, I don't think it's much.


posted by Thursday at 10:52 pm


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