President George W. Bush knew well what he was doing when he rolled out the red carpet for the young new Canadian leader at the White House Thursday. For, after only half a year in office and constrained by his Conservative party’s lack of an overall majority in the Canadian House of Commons, Harper has already shown himself a loyal friend of the United States who shares the Bush administration’s strategic concerns akin to Britain’s Tony Blair and Japan’s Junichiro Koizumi.
Harper’s latest coup has been to push through a $15 billion boost in Canadian defense spending that is virtually unprecedented in modern times.
As veteran Canadian journalist Paul Jackson noted in an article published on The American Thinker website Wednesday, Harper’s new procurement plan includes $4 billion to buy and maintain four long-range, heavy-lift aircraft, probably C-17 Globemasters, $3.2 billion for 17 other transport aircraft to replace Canada’s decades-old C-130 fleet, $2 billion for 16 medium-to-heavy lift helicopters, $2.1 billion for three new supply ships, and $1.2 billion to buy 2,300 military trucks to replace the rusted out contingent used to supply and transport the armed forces.
Since Britain’s Royal Air Force has now been reduced to a rapid air lift capability of only five aging Tristars that can carry no more than 266 fully armed troops each, Harper’s ambitious plan may soon give Canada a rapid deployment capability in excess of Britain’s.
And in May, Harper unexpectedly won overwhelming approval from the Canadian House of Commons to renew and strengthen Canada’s venerable North American Aerospace Defense Command treaty, or NORAD, with the United States.
The overwhelming nature of the vote was a personal triumph for the hard-charging Harper. There are many critics in Canada of NORAD, which was first signed in 1958 and has been regularly updated ever since. They have been particularly outspoken in the opposition National Democratic party.
However, the NDP was the only party seriously to oppose renewal of the pact. The House of Commons overwhelmingly passed ratification on May 8 by 257 votes to 30 in the 308-seat parliament.
This was especially remarkable as Harper, Canada’s first Conservative party prime minister in more than a decade and a half, does not command a majority in the Commons. The Canadian general election earlier this year brought his party back from the political wilderness, but only with a plurality of seats. And all the other four major parties — the Liberals, the NDP, the Bloc Quebecois, and the Greens — are to the left of the Conservatives.
The conventional wisdom was that Harper would therefore be constrained from taking bold initiatives, especially on expanding security cooperation with the United States, that might isolate his Conservatives and provoke opposition parties to band together and vote him out of office.
Instead, Harper took a leaf out of the playbook of his friend, President Bush. Like Bush after his November 2000 election victory with fewer votes than his opponent Al Gore, Harper concluded that the best way to build his strength was to push ahead and show bold leadership in the policies he is committed to.
This high risk strategy flies in the face of Canada’s famous “middle of the road” consensus political tradition. But it paid off for Harper in the Canadian general election when he emphasized his wish to bring Canada into ballistic missile defense cooperation with the United States. And it paid off again in the parliamentary battle over NORAD renewal when the main opposition Liberal party followed Harper’s lead and also backed NORAD ratification.
The scale of Harper’s victory over NORAD was especially striking as the approval Harper won was not for the old Cold War version of the treaty but one that had been significantly updated to handle the new security threats of the 21st century.
NORAD was previously renewed every five years, but the new agreement eliminates this requirement by making it a permanent alliance. However, both countries still retain the right of periodic review and can drop out with a year’s notice.
Harper’s boldness in presenting his plans for defense expansion builds on the political momentum he won with his NORAD victory. He can also now be expected to boost bilateral security cooperation with U.S. agencies such as the FBI, the CIA, and the Department of Homeland Security in monitoring and fighting networks of Islamist extremists in Canada. They are believed to be especially concentrated and well-organized in Montreal and may even spread to British Columbia and Vancouver, some U.S. security sources believe.
Three-times-elected Liberal Prime Minister Jean Chretien did not take the growth of Islamist networks in Canada seriously. Despite some reports at the time to the contrary, it was quickly ascertained that none of the Sept. 11, 2001, hijackers flew into the United States from Canada. Nevertheless, many U.S. security analysts believe that in some respects, the U.S. border with Canada has been more porous and more open to infiltration by Islamists than the U.S. border with Mexico. Mexican federal police and security forces are energetic, tough, and operate under far fewer civil-liberties constraints than their Canadian counterparts.
Finally, renewing NORAD opens the way for initial cooperation between Canada and the United States on ballistic missile defense. President Bush offered such cooperation in February 2005 to Harper’s predecessor as prime minister, the hapless Liberal party leader Paul Martin, under terms that would not have cost the Canadian taxpayer a cent. However, Martin first accepted Bush’s offer, then under pressure from critics within and outside his own Liberal party, he changed his mind. That quieted his party critics but left him looking foolish and indecisive on a major national security issue before the Canadian people. By sticking to his guns and pushing ahead rapidly with his determination to establish BMD cooperation, Harper cemented his own leadership credentials in the following election campaign.
Expanding NORAD and backing BMD cooperation with the United States proved to be political winners for Harper: They divided his opposition and left them trailing in his wake while he provided decisive leadership that played well with the Canadian people. By contrast, the Liberals appear increasingly divided and indecisive on national security issues. As Paul Jackson noted, Frank McKenna, a long-time Liberal party heavyweight and former Canadian ambassador to Washington, has split with Paul Martin on ballistic missile defense and has urged the Liberals to support it.
President Bush entered office anticipating an unprecedented honeymoon with his southern counterpart, Mexican President Vincente Fox. As Fox leaves office after what was in essence a failed presidential term, the U.S. leader instead now has the pleasant prospect — entirely inconceivable in terms of conventional wisdom six years ago — of enjoying a political honeymoon for his remaining years in office with the dynamic young go-getter in Ottawa.
– Martin Sieff is national-security correspondent for United Press International.