The U.S. Central Intelligence Agency saw Brian Mulroney’s new government as a welcome alternative to the “gratuitous negative” attitude of the often prickly Pierre Trudeau, declassified documents show.
The CIA cautiously assessed the “Boy from Baie Comeau” as a more amiable ally than the occasionally irascible Mr. Trudeau in a September, 1984 memo written three weeks after Mr. Mulroney’s Progressive Conservatives swept to power, ousting the long-entrenched Liberals.
The intelligence agency did not expect a wholesale shift from Mulroney, but cautiously greeted his “conciliatory and constructive” approach.
On East-West trade, relations with the Communist world and U.S. involvement in Central America, the CIA believed the Tories would “steer a pragmatic course,” supporting Washington when in Canada’s interest and chastising it otherwise, says the memo.
“Unlike Trudeau, however, we expect Mulroney to refrain from gratuitous negative comments about U.S. foreign policy and to remain evasive or silent when it is politically possible to do so.”
The Canadian Press obtained several CIA analyses of Mr. Mulroney’s early months in office through the U.S. Freedom of Information Act. Portions of the records, quietly declassified by the agency in recent months, remain secret.
Though Mr. Mulroney was widely seen as blatantly trying to cosy up to Ronald Reagan’s Republicans, — even singing “When Irish Eyes Are Smiling” with the U.S. president in the spring of 1985 — the intelligence agency looked beyond the photo ops in an attempt to divine the prime minister’s political intentions.
It also tried to characterize Mr. Mulroney’s style based on his limited political dabbling to that point.
“As a politician, Mulroney — much like the most successful Canadian prime minister, the Liberal Mackenzie King — can be best described as a ‘trimmer,’ ready to adjust to changing political winds and relatively unconcerned with consistency in policies.”
The CIA argued that although Mr. Mulroney’s “winning personality” and status as a son of Quebec were prime assets for the Tories, building an effective political organization in the province would “not be easy.”
Indeed, by the turn of the next decade, the Tories’ grip on the province would fail following failed constitutional overtures.
The intelligence agency sized up the Mr. Mulroney government’s likely course of action on foreign investment, defence policy, energy strategy, the environment and fisheries.
The level of scrutiny — despite the fact Canada was a close friend and ally — is hardly surprising, said Sarah-Jane Corke, who teaches U.S. intelligence history and foreign policy at Dalhousie University in Halifax.
“It would have been completely normal for them to do this,” she said. “They would have studies like this on every country in the world, and especially issues that reflect in any way their national security objectives.”
A May, 1985 CIA paper on the politics of Canadian defence policy lambasted Mr. Trudeau’s “deliberate neglect” of the military during his 16 years in office.
“In our opinion, Canadians generally think little about defence and when they do, reject outright the idea of giving defence priority over maintaining the social welfare system,” says the brief.
“These attitudes made it easy for Trudeau to ignore defence, and will make it very difficult for Mulroney to implement a more expensive and efficient defence program.”
The CIA concluded that Tory defence efforts for the foreseeable future would be more rhetoric than substance — an accurate assessment in many eyes given that promised budgetary and troop increases would evaporate.
Still, the CIA perceived tangible, if subtle, shifts on foreign policy in Nicaragua, where the U.S. staunchly opposed the socialist Sandinistas.
The agency noted then-external affairs minister Joe Clark did not send official observers to the Nicaraguan election of 1984 even though the Liberals had indicated they probably would, and that he had resisted pressure to open an embassy in Managua.
“Mulroney and Clark hope that such controversial decisions are viewed in Washington as evidence that the Tories do not intend to take steps that would enhance the legitimacy of the Sandinista government.”
Despite its familiarity with Canadian politicians and their inclinations, the CIA’s prognostications weren’t always on target.
Early on, the agency felt Mr. Mulroney was giving environmental issues short shrift, assigning the portfolio to a freshman MP. However, his government went on to create several national parks, pass key environmental legislation and ratify international treaties, winning him plaudits.