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McCain Goes North on Us

Senator John McCain

The Republican Candidate Courts the Canadian Vote

Afghanistan, some experts say, is falling back into the hands of the Taliban. Barack Obama has bashed John McCain and Hillary Clinton hard for their votes authorizing the Iraq war, and pointed to crises in Afghanistan and neighboring Pakistan as the real threat to American security.

Senator Joe Biden told the New York Times that if he were still a candidate for president, he’d be doing everything he could to put Afghanistan back into public focus.

So when McCain bashed Obama for threatening to reopen trade agreements with our anti-Taliban allies, McCain waxed eloquent about Canada, and about the need for sensitive diplomacy, so that the multinational effort to stabilize Afghanistan succeeds.

The Afghan war could escalate in 2008, starting soon. Recent reports from think tanks and international aid organizations all say the same thing: The Taliban is back, the central government is failing, the war isn’t working and there will be much, much more blood.

And there will be hard feelings, possibly worse, in the special relationship between Canada and the US if some of the recent rhetoric in the presidential race continues. The rhetoric problem isn’t about Afghanistan or terrorism. It’s about NAFTA—the North American Free Trade Agreement.

NAFTA is a bright line separating Democrats from Republicans. Democrats bash NAFTA when they campaign in Ohio, Pennsylvania, Michigan and the other Rust Belt states that have been losing manufacturing jobs and industrial capital to the Sun Belt and to globalization for the past 30 years or more.

NAFTA dates back barely a decade. Bethlehem Steel, Republic Steel and the other huge Rust Belt employers had been closed for a dozen years before NAFTA was ever enacted. But whenever politicians posture as trade protectionists, their bull’s-eye always seems to be NAFTA. Somehow the stories about Chinese-made toys smothered in lead, and Chinese toothpaste full of antifreeze, and Chinese medicines full of poison, and Wal-Marts full of Chinese-made products, turn into gripes about NAFTA. Many believe that Chinese (not Canadian) health, labor and environmental standards constitute a threat to American jobs.

But words have consequences. The Toronto Globe and Mail editorial page calmly chided both Obama and Clinton for bashing the three-way agreement among Mexico, Canada and the US, instructing that one party cannot just tinker with the deal absent the other two agreeing.

When McCain smacked Democrats for equating NAFTA with every lead-filled toy and poisonous dog-treat, he brought Canada and the rest of the NATO alliance into the campaign. He laid claim to being the true internationalist.

Canada has 2,500 troops in Afghanistan. The United States, 10 times bigger, has 23,000 troops there. The Germans, French and Italians all have more troops on the ground in Afghanistan than Canada. McCain singled out the Canadians for praise, and with good reason: He can praise the our European allies another day. But Canada is our largest trading partner, and our largest single supplier of energy, with astoundingly large petroleum reserves in the oil sands in Alberta.

Canada won’t ever be the crux of a presidential campaign. Our ability to communicate with our allies, however, could be.

McCain’s critique of Obama echoed a theme that Clinton spent months hammering him on. The accusation: that Obama is a newbie, blundering around, and that steadier hands than his are required to deal with a complex world.

Obama responds by blaming George Bush and his old hands Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld and John McCain—as well as Hillary Clinton—for Iraq. After all, the polls say that that folks hate the Iraq war.

Meanwhile, every day, the complexity of the rest of the world ever reasserts itself.

George Bush jumped to recognize the new mainly Muslim nation of Kosovo, which until last week was the ethnic Albanian province of Serbia. Kosovo’s citizens suffered horribly under the genocidal terror unleashed by a former Serbian government. Only a US-led multinational alliance, which bombed the Serbian capital of Belgrade on Orthodox Easter Sunday in 1999, drove the Serb ethnic cleansers out of Kosovo. Obama, Clinton and McCain all welcomed Bush’s recognition of Kosovo’s unilateral declaration of independence.

Historically Orthodox Russia hasn’t recognized Kosovo. Nor has historically Orthodox Greece. Nor have any of the other countries populated, like Serbia, by Orthodox Christians.

Nor has Canada. Why?

It’s not because of large, vocal protests by Serbs and other Orthodox Christians living in Canadian cities. It’s not because of the complex history of the Balkans, as in World War Two, when the Serbian capital of Belgrade was bombed and brutalized by the Nazis, while the Albanian population of Kosovo welcomed Nazi promises of a Greater Albania. The US needs Muslim allies, surely, but Canada certainly has no policy to antagonize its own large and growing Muslim population.

Canada is, however, a complex place. It’s a sometimes uneasy federation. There is Quebec, whose continued membership in the federation seems to be an endless discussion. There is booming Alberta, and booming British Columbia, some of whose politicians alternately murmur and bark about going their own way. Canada is complex. Maybe even fragile. Today, Kosovo declares its independence and the world salutes. Quebec is a question hanging uncomfortably.

When he praised Canada’s alliance in the Afghan war, and when he reassured Canadians about NAFTA, McCain was paying his respects to alliances and sensitivities, and to the special relationship with an old, steady American ally. Ditto Mexico: McCain has been subtle, sensitive and profoundly irritating to “conservative” politicians on the issue of the southern US border. Rush Limbaugh wants a new Great Wall. McCain calls Rush Limbaugh, with apologies to Krusty and Bozo, a clown.

Fair enough. But if McCain can tread carefully for the allies, he ought to tread carefully at home, too. All await McCain’s denunciation, or repudiation, of his latest endorser, the lunatic Texas pastor who calls the Catholic Church “the whore of Rome.” Isn’t that akin to Farrakhan’s brutal smear on the character of Judaism? Foreign policy may require nuance. Not this.