Power Play: On Afghanistan

October 28, 2009  CTV Powerplay Interview

With the recent death of another Canadian soldier in Afghanistan, questions are being raised about the need for Canada’s military efforts in the country. The former Canadian envoy in Washington, Colin Robertson and a CTV correspondent weigh in on Canada and America’s strategy on the war.

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‘We can’t just wait out our Afghan commitment’

By Colin Robertson, Canwest News ServicesOctober 30, 2009

Last week, NATO’s defence ministers meeting in Bratislava, Slovakia decided to “broadly endorse” Gen. Stanley McChrystal’s recommendation, in his capacity as ISAF commander, for more NATO troops — 85,000 according to the International Herald Tribune. Like it or not, if collective security is still to have meaning, NATO first ministers will now share the same dilemma as U.S. President Barack Obama. Do we “double down” in a war where no one yet sees light at the end of the tunnel, mindful that domestic opinion is against sending in more troops?

Canada has earned both place and standing in Afghanistan through our commitment to collective security. Canadians, especially Quebecers, as the survey released this past weekend by the Innovative Research Group (IRG) underlines, are increasingly hesitant about putting our soldiers in harm’s way when Canada has no direct interest at stake, but we support continuing reconstruction projects, such as the Dahla dam, after the military mission ends.

The last Canadian Parliament decided that our current commitment ends in 2011. Prime Minister Stephen Harper has given no indication he is thinking differently, although in testimony before a parliamentary committee earlier this month Defence Minister Peter MacKay suggested troops would remain in a “non-combat” role to protect our development and reconstruction projects.

So are we done in Afghanistan, at least in terms of a major military commitment? Probably. But not necessarily.

What we do abroad, especially when we take the initiative, as we have demonstrated in Afghanistan, is a source of national pride and satisfaction. It also bolsters and reinforces Canadian identity. Yet for all our sensitivity and sensibility, we often fail to appreciate that our actions can also influence the decisions of others. Bruce Riedel, who headed President Obama’s transition task force on Afghanistan, spoke earlier this month at the University of Ottawa. “Americans,” he told us, “will be looking to see what you do. … What Canada does in Afghanistan will be wholly and significantly important in the debate that takes place … much more, I think, than any other country.”

After the invasion of Iraq in 2003, America effectively left Afghanistan to NATO. The load fell especially on Canadians and Britons. We chose to be at the sharp end in the south based out of Kandahar. We have since taken more than our share of the load and made a significant sacrifice.

President Obama, who in the election primaries identified himself as the anti-war candidate (the war being Iraq), has since declared Afghanistan to be a “war of necessity.” His choice for command of both the American and ISAF forces, Gen. McChrystal, has made his report and, thanks to Bob Woodward, we know that McChrystal recommends we undertake a surge-like campaign designed to regain the countryside while winning the “hearts and minds” of Afghans. Giving teeth to the recommendation and balancing it against domestic skepticism, especially from Democratic leadership in Congress, is the challenge for Obama. Now, after the NATO defence ministers’ meeting, that challenge is also on the table of chanceries throughout Europe and in Ottawa. The nuance is that it is not Washington asking us directly for a further commitment, but the NATO commander who has now received the endorsement of NATO defence ministers.

Canadians by a large majority (82 per cent according to the IRG survey) continue to strongly support membership in NATO to deal with the threat of al-Qaeda and rogue states. Is this sufficient to support a commitment for more troops in an effort that could well become as long as our 29 years in Cyprus?

As Prime Minister Stephen Harper observed earlier this year “the future of NATO … is in considerable doubt.” It needs to get its act together. The inimitable Gen. Rick Hillier, who led the effort to put us in Kandahar, writes in A Soldier First that “Afghanistan has revealed that NATO has reached the stage where it is a corpse decomposing and somebody’s going to have to perform a Frankenstein-like life-giving act by breathing some lifesaving air through those rotten lips into those putrescent lungs or the alliance will be done.” As British strategist Gen. Rupert Smith observes, the time has come to decide whether NATO is a “political alliance with a military purpose or a military alliance with a political cause.” If NATO fails in Afghanistan what is its value?

The events of the coming weeks are not likely to make the decision any easier. Winter conditions, a resurgent Taliban, disillusionment and apathy will make conditions for voting even more difficult in a country that is the size of Alberta and with a population around the same as Canada. We can assume that the runoff scheduled for Nov. 7 will be characterized by continuing fraud.

There are no easy answers. Flora MacDonald, honored recently by the National Quality Institute for her work in Afghanistan, personifies the difference Canadian aid projects are making, especially to the lives of Afghan women and their children. We are doing our bit on the battlefield and then some. The rest of the alliance has to step up because development cannot happen without peace and security.

The road to success in Afghanistan now runs through NATO. Canadians have a special interest and commitment to NATO. We were present at its creation. While our commitment has not always been consistent, Canadians play a critical role in its development. As Riedel reminds us, what we decide will be closely watched in Washington and elsewhere. Hard decisions are still ahead of us before we sound the last post in Kandahar.

Colin Robertson is a Senior Research Fellow at the Canadian Defence and Foreign Affairs Institute and a former Canadian diplomat.

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Power Play: On Afghanistan, Will fraud affect Canadian support?

October 19, 2009 CTV Powerplay Interview

Retired general Tom Wilkerson and former Canadian envoy in Washington Colin Robertson discuss the apprehensions Canadians have about the mission in Afghanistan.

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Canada’s biggest problem? America

From Macleans.ca by Luiza Ch. Savage on Wednesday, October 7, 2009  Canada’s biggest problem? America From protectionist policy to border security to environmental laws, our best friend is making our lives miserable

Better late than never, says Colin Robertson, a former Canadian diplomat in Washington. “It’s been five years since a Canadian prime minister has been out there in a formal sense,” says Robertson, a senior fellow at the Norman Paterson School of International Affairs at Carleton University.

“It is entirely appropriate for the Prime Minister to go to Congress—he is our legislator-in-chief. If we started doing that on a consistent basis, that will give us more credibility. It opens the conversation on future engagement,” he adds.To address concerns about border security, Robertson says the heads of Canadian security agencies such as CSIS and the RCMP, and their U.S. counterparts, should jointly educate members of Congress about the deep bilateral co-operation in law enforcement and intelligence. “If you send that information to Congress, it will make it easier on border issues,” he says. Likewise, Robertson says Canadian labour should take an aggressive role in pressing top U.S. labour leaders on protectionism that hurts Canadian unions. “A third of Canadian unions are affiliates of U.S. unions. It’s brother hurting brother,” he says. “Canadians need to work the American system the way the Americans themselves use it. You have to play by American rules.”

Myers agrees. “It’s clear Canada won’t go far just by trying to encourage the U.S. to do us favours,” he says. “We have a lot of work to do to build a stronger voice among stake-holder groups like business associations and labour associations across Canada and the U.S. to say that we are in this together.”

But when it comes to direct dealings with the Obama administration, Canada has to walk a fine line between raising bilateral issues and trivializing the relationship. “Because of the U.S.’s position in the world, the President is dealing with international issues, whether it’s Afghanistan, Iran or North Korea,” Wilkins says. “Those are the primary focus. It behooves any country dealing with the U.S. to talk about the international issues before you turn your attention to wait times at the Peace Bridge.”

Robertson has much the same message. “With the Americans we tend to focus on just the little neighborhood stuff,” he complains, noting that the Canadian emphasis on bilateral irritants came to irritate Bush’s secretary of state, Condoleezza Rice. “She would say, ‘Here come the Canadians with their condominium issues.’ ” Robertson, for one, regrets that Harper raised the issue of hockey flights at his tête-à-tête with Obama, rather than leaving it to ministers and ambassadors. “It makes them wonder: are we dealing with a border state governor or a serious G8 nation? We tend to ratchet stuff up because we think this is what the public wants. But the public wants results. A lot of stuff the President can’t resolve.”

Meanwhile, Robertson says, the U.S. is strongly interested in the Canadian perspective and Canadian contacts on issues from Afghanistan to Pakistan to the western hemisphere. Indeed, the outgoing Canadian ambassador to Washington, Michael Wilson, has called Canada’s military role in Afghanistan the “best calling card I had” in Washington. When that military commitment winds down, it will not make the Canada-U.S. relationship any easier. “That’s going to be front and centre for the government, for Parliament, for some time, as to how we handle this in a way that doesn’t undermine the terrific goodwill that we have,” he told Maclean’s in a recent interview.

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Take Advantage of the Obama effect

Special to The Windsor Star  Colin Robertson
Monday, October 05, 2009
During last months’ meeting with President Barack Obama, his seventh since they first met in February, Prime Minister Stephen Harper said that the United States is “far and away our best friend in the world.”
There are times when leaders are out of sync with popular sentiment but, as the survey conducted this past weekend by the Innovative Research Group reveals, more than half of Canadians believe that Obama’s election has been a good thing for Canada. Call it the “Obama effect.”
A close relationship with the U.S. is no longer the liability for Canadian governments that it became under president George W. Bush. More to the point — for those who want an adult relationship with our neighbour — there is now negligible political advantage in slamming the Americans during an election campaign.
As critical as the sea-change in popular attitude is the survey’s finding that, while Canadians are not seeking a closer relationship, we think it “just makes sense” to give our leadership leeway for closer co-operation on continental defence and border issues, particularly if the security and trade benefits are made clear.
The “Ottawa agenda” launched a clean energy dialogue as well as discussions on border management and international security.
It will be important to reap an early harvest of mutually beneficial gains and improvements to maintain momentum and public confidence in the process. Because in the coming months the drumbeat of protectionism on the American side is only going to get louder.
Even Obama acknowledges that American unemployment is going to reach into the double digits before the recovery begins to create new jobs.
Support for both the president and his party is dropping as white working-class voters worry about their jobs and personal debt and voice increasing doubt about Democratic policies on health care, energy and the environment, and the stimulus package.
With the 2010 mid-terms already very much on the minds of the 435 members of Congress and one-third of the Senate standing for re-election, fundraising is well underway.
Union support, both in money and organization, is vital to the Democratic majority. In return, union leadership expects support on policies, including “Buy America.”
They find a receptive audience in members like Ohio Congressman Dennis Kucin-ich, who campaigned for the presidential nomination with slogans like “it’s either Buy America or bye-bye America.”
For many, it has an almost irresistible appeal.
Recently, for example, the president slapped a 35 per cent tariff on Chinese-made tires.
China has reacted with threats to impose retaliatory measures on chicken meat and American auto products.
Yet auto products, thanks to the Auto Pact and over half a century of integrated supply chains are less “American” than “North American” in origin, design and construction.
It is estimated that before final assembly, components that go into cars and trucks criss-cross the border seven times and, for car parts in particular, many of them are made in Canada or by Magna plants in the U.S.
With almost half of our GDP dependent on international trade and supply chain management, Canadian jobs are at stake.
To prevent being side-swiped, Canadian leadership needs smart initiatives and room to manoeuvre when they are negotiating with their American counterparts. This means active co-operation and collaboration with the prov-inces, business and labour to make it an all-of-Canada effort.
The provinces have endorsed reciprocity in procurement and Stockwell Day has put a national proposal before Ron Kirk, the U.S. trade representative.
The Canadian and American chambers of commerce have already put on the table a series of progressive and practical proposals including expanding trusted shipper and traveller programs and providing 24/7 access at border crossings.
Canadian labour unions need to be integrated into the all-Canada effort, especially given the privileged access they have with their American brethren.
Over a third of Canadian unions are affiliates of the American internationals, including the United Steelworkers, who are leading the Buy America campaign. Their leader, Leo Gerard, is a Canadian who previously directed the Canadian division of the USW.
We bring to the negotiating table two indispensable assets: jobs and geography. For 35 American states we are their main market.
For more than seven million Americans, their jobs depend on trade with Canada. Parse that down by state and congressional district and include Canadian investment and we have a powerful argument on the economics and mutual benefits of continuing integration.
As for geography, as historian David Bercuson has pointed out, we are also America’s “front porch.” American national security depends on Canadian control of the sea and air approaches.
As the northern passages become more navigable, we need to demonstrate our capacity for Arctic sovereignty.
We also need to reinforce our coastal perimeter security against the new threat of terrorists and sea-borne drug traffickers and people smugglers.
Improved perimeter defence will also reinforce American confidence in Canadian capacity — a necessary prerequisite if we are to achieve progress on border issues.
Creating a shield for our shared North American perimeter was the argument for air defence co-operation in the creation of NORAD in the late-1950s.
A half-century later the argument of joint co-operation for mutual protection remains. Today, with different threats and challenges, there is a compelling case for expanding NORAD to integrate the land and sea forces of Canada Command and U.S. Northern Command.
In the news conference at the end of their meeting, Obama observed that the prime minister has been “on the job” in raising Canadian interests at every encounter. So he must and so was again last week at Pittsburgh with his G-20 counterparts.
While the president has told us he loves Canada and surveys tell us that Americans like us, in the U.S. strategic calculation we are neither top-of-mind nor a problem.
But geography and the inexorably positive force of economic integration means that when disruptions occur to the natural flow of people, goods and investment, we suffer.
Canadian leadership must take the initiative to protect and advance our interests.
In this season of election fever, it certainly gives them greater confidence to do the right thing knowing that Canadians are behind them.
Colin Robertson is a senior research fellow at the Canadian Defence and Foreign Affairs Institute. A former Canadian diplomat, he was part of the teams that negotiated the FTA and NAFTA and he served in New York, Los Angeles and Washington. This column first appeared in the Ottawa Citizen.

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New U.S. ambassador presents credentials in Ottawa

Oct. 2 2009 from CTV News Report

The new U.S. Ambassador says Canada could be exempted from the controversial “Buy American” policy, if provinces open up their contracts to companies south of the border.

“I look forward to participating in those discussions,” David Jacobson told reporters just after a ceremony officially welcoming him to Canada Friday.

“Hopefully we can move this forward in a way that is beneficial to both countries,” he said.

The controversial clause in the U.S. financial stimulus bill blocks foreign firms from bidding on contracts at both the state and municipal levels

Jacobson said officials are considering a proposal from International Trade Minister Stockwell Day, to strike agreements between provinces and states.

If Day’s proposal is accepted and reciprocity deals are agreed to, companies from both Canada and the U.S. would be able to bid on infrastructure projects on either side of the border.

Jacobson officially took his position as the new Ambassador to Canada, after Gov. Gen. Michaelle Jean formally accepted his credentials at Rideau Hall.

Later in the day Jacobsen met briefly with Prime Minister Stephen Harper in his Langevin Block office.

U.S. President Barack Obama nominated Jacobson, a lawyer, for the position in June, and he was confirmed by the U.S. Senate in September.

At a news conference on Friday morning, a smiling Jacobson said his intention is to visit every province in Canada within the next weeks.

“I think it’s very important that before I start making decisions and trying to do things, that I have a good and firm understanding of the country and of its people,” he said.

“And I’ll also tell you, just on a personal level, to see the beauty and the grandeur of the country. And that’s going to be my first priority.”

Jacobson said Canada was his first choice of post because he wants to focus on trade and energy.

He also said he was a long-time hockey fan, especially of his hometown Chicago Blackhawks.

“I will tell you, I’m old enough that I was a fan when the Blackhawks had Bobby Hull and Stan Mikita and Glenn Hall, and Frank Mahovlich played for the Maple Leafs, and Maurice Richard played for the Canadiens,” said Jacobson.

Close ties to the Oval Office

Former ambassador to Canada Jim Blanchard says Jacobson’s close ties with Obama will make him a useful ally for Ottawa in negotiating a Canadian exemption to the “Buy American” policy.

“I think David is going to do a great job, not just because he knew a lot about Canada but he’s very close to the president,” Blanchard told CTV Power Play host Tom Clark.

Jacobson has been working in the White House for several months and he and Obama share their hometown of Chicago.

Blanchard said Jacobson’s big challenge will be dealing with “nitpicking” trade issues that he says tend to be brought up by Canadians during negotiations.

“We need to elevate the relationship and deal with big issues,” he said. “When Canadians do complain about smaller things we tend to turn Canada off.”

Reporters also asked Jacobson about his knowledge of Canada’s intention to end the combat mission in Afghanistan after 2011.

“That’s an issue that’s up to the Canadian people,” he said. “As the president has made clear, what he’s concerned about is Canada’s role in 2009 and 2010, and I’ll stick with the President’s views.”

Colin Robinson, a former Canadian consul general to the U.S., told Power Play that the country has much to learn from Canada’s experience in Afghanistan.

“The U.S. should look to Canada for advice. We can bring advice to the table that the president can appreciate,” he said.

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