Did Paul Martin just blink on missile defence? If you take a look at what the PM did in Monterrey last week, you might very well conclude he did. Before the meeting, officials assured journalists that missile defence would be touched on at Martin's first rendezvous with George W. Bush. But surprisingly, Martin later denied the issue ever came up. Did Martin ask that missile defence not be raised? As one reporter remarked, "The Americans know very well what issues are controversial in Canada and when to avoid talking about them publicly."
What Martin did do was to ask American officials for "more information" on its national missile defence system as an aid to continuing negotiations. Defence Minister David Pratt said he had sent a letter to U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld requesting "access to the information about missile defence that we will need to make a decision on participation." He did not, it must be noted, just sign on.
A strange turn of events, given that talks between the two militaries on the terms of Canada's joining the national missile defence system were approved in May 2003, and a final Cabinet decision on joining was to be taken in the fall. Former defence minister John McCallum reported in September that the talks were "going well" and a draft agreement would be ready for Cabinet soon.
So what is the meaning of this sudden go-slow strategy? Pratt now says a decision will not be made until next October - remarkably, almost a full year later than originally planned, and presumably after the federal election. It's open to speculation, but some political observers might surmise that putting the brakes on the process may have something to do with what federal Liberals are finding in their polling.
Critics have been accusing the new leader of being too far to the right, too close to his corporate friends and too anxious to appease U.S. President Bush. This may explain why Martin is spending so much air time countering NDP leader Jack Layton, who is campaigning against the missile system and the potential for spaced-based weapons. Pratt recently accused Layton of "scaremongering."
"We're studying it further,' may be code language for "We're worried about this one." The reaction is out of keeping with the U.S.-style pro-military stamp Martin has put on his new government. He has created a new security department similar to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, appointed the hawkish David Pratt as defence minister, frozen capital spending on everything except new tanks and helicopters for the military, and symbolically spent his first day in office touring National Defence HQ.
Still, a federal election is drawing near, and Canadians haven't stopped celebrating their independence vis-à-vis the war in Iraq. The missile defence system debate is a potent symbol of competing world views: one based on traditional Canadian values of peace and multilateralism, the other rooted in a Fortress North America hiding behind an American shield. Could the PM have avoided making missile defence an issue on the hustings by signing quickly and letting it blow over by spring? Not likely if Jack Layton has anything to do with it. The slow route now allows Martin to talk endlessly about seeking clarity while he reads the polls - and waits to make the final decision after the election, when the political costs are the lowest.
Steven Staples is a defence analyst with the Polaris Institute, an Ottawa-based public interest research group.