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Should Trudeau’s Liberals ask Trump for protection against missiles?: Tim Harper

Engaging the U.S. president on a defence initiative would cost the Liberals at home, but they might be wise to endure the heat.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, right, and United States President Donald Trump chat at the G20 summit, Saturday, July 8, 2017 in Hamburg, Germany. The Liberal government must consider joining America's missile defence system, despite the political price it will pay in Canada.

THE CANADIAN PRESS/Ryan Remiorz

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, right, and United States President Donald Trump chat at the G20 summit, Saturday, July 8, 2017 in Hamburg, Germany. The Liberal government must consider joining America's missile defence system, despite the political price it will pay in Canada.

When it comes to defending Canada from potential missile strikes, domestic politics has always muddied strategic defence considerations.

Canadian sovereignty. Our role as an “honest broker.’’ Our fear of sparking an arms race. Our relationship with the United States. And, more often than not, the popularity, or lack thereof, in Canada of the man in the White House.

It has often kept the bureaucracy and military thinkers at odds with the politicians.

But sometimes, it’s more a matter of trying to determine what Canada would get out of joining a U.S.-led ballistic missile defence (BMD) program.

If you believe federal politics in this country can, at times, seem like the same debate, every 10 to 20 years or so, we may be at that point again with a debate about joining with the U.S. on BMD looming.

Twice before, Canadian prime ministers have kicked the tires then backed away.

Brian Mulroney said “thanks, but no thanks,” to Ronald Reagan’s 1985 Star Wars program. Paul Martin more famously finally said no to George W. Bush on ballistic missile defence 20 years later.

Now Conservatives, who didn’t even talk about continental missile defence during nine years of Stephen Harper governments, are challenging the Liberals to engage in BMD defence with the Donald Trump administration.

“It is irresponsible for Prime Minister Trudeau and Minister Sajjan to not acknowledge that the threat environment has changed dramatically,’’ says Conservative foreign affairs critic Erin O’Toole.

O’Toole is correct. Sajjan acknowledges that.

The capability of North Korea to launch a missile that can reach North America is continuing apace, and most analysts believe it is just a matter of time before that capability is reached.

The war of words between Trump and Kim Jong Un has only ratcheted up worldwide tension.

Sajjan preferred to talk about NORAD modernization when questioned by reporters this week, but did appear to leave the door open a crack when it came to engaging the Trump administration.

This is a double-edged sword for the Trudeau Liberals. Engaging with such a president so unpopular here would hurt them domestically. Yet, if the Liberals could link BMD talks with relief in NAFTA, or the softwood lumber or aerospace industries embroiled in trade disputes, they might be able to withstand the heat.

The problem is whether Canadian membership matters to the U.S.

When Mulroney walked away from Reagan’s much-derided Star Wars plan, a land and space-based missile shield for the U.S., it did not hurt relations.

Martin was being urged by the bureaucracy to get with the Bush plan because Washington was still smarting from Jean Chrétien’s decision to sit out the president’s “coalition of the willing” in Iraq. A ‘yes’ would be key to Canada-U.S. harmony.

But, according to those on the inside in 2005, that same bureaucracy could not spell out exactly how it would work and what benefits there were for Canada.

Bush came to Canada in 2005 and shilled for Canadian participation, overriding an agreement from officials from both countries that missile defence would be kept off the table.

Martin reacted by finally rejecting participation after a protracted domestic debate.

Yes, it was unpopular in Canada and the historical narrative says Washington was upset, but one former official in the Martin PMO remembers a call with then-U.S. deputy defence minister Paul Wolfowitz, who told the Canadians he understood the decision and said the door was open should minds be changed.

Then he immediately changed the topic, asking the Canadians if they knew Roméo Dallaire because he had just seen Hotel Rwanda, and he wanted to meet the Canadian general who heroically tried to stop the Rwandan genocide. He was played by Nick Nolte in the movie.

So far, calls to join the BDM have been limited to north of the border.

No one in the Trump White House is calling for Canadian participation.

Last month, NORAD’s senior Canadian, deputy commander Pierre St-Amand, shocked Ottawa by telling the parliamentary defence committee it is not U.S. policy to shoot down a missile targeted at Canada, leaving Canada potentially defenceless in case of an attack.

Canada will have the warning, we will know where the missile is going, then Canada would silently sit by as the U.S. decided whether to defend against the missile or not.

Heading to Washington to ask Trump for protection will surely start the domestic debate here. But the Liberal government might be wise to endure that debate in return for protection in uncertain times.

Tim Harper writes on national affairs. Tjharper77@gmail.com Twitter: @nutgraf1

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