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U.S. President Barack Obama looks on as Prime Minister Stephen Harper speaks to reporters in the Oval Office on Sept. 16, 2009. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)
U.S. President Barack Obama looks on as Prime Minister Stephen Harper speaks to reporters in the Oval Office on Sept. 16, 2009. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

Norman Spector

Harper's U.S. problem Add to ...

According to a report in this morning's Globe, Prime Minister Harper will be lobbying both the President and Congress to counter Buy America policies. Though U.S. businesses, too, have much to lose from protectionism, Congress did not exempt Canada in the FTA and NAFTA thanks to the recalcitrance of our provinces - as the Wall Street Journal not-so-helpfully reminds its readers today.

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Aside from the strong protectionist sentiment in the union-heavy Democratic Party, here's the Prime Minister's problem:

Mr. Harper has worked hard to align his economic policies with President Obama's. On climate change, the new U.S. Administration, too, wants to bury Kyoto, according to a report in today's Guardian. And, while many expected Afghanistan to be an area of friction, the President has still not asked anything of Canada, which has allowed Mr. Harper to say almost nothing about the war.

That state of grace won't last much longer. Indeed, Mr. Harper landed in Washington the very day the U.S. domestic debate over Afghanistan broke wide open, as he will understand when he sees the banner headline in this morning's Washington Post.

Yesterday, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff told a Congressional committee that success in Afghanistan would probably require more fighting forces, and certainly much more time. The Democrats on the Committee - including those with whom Mr. Harper will be meeting today - disagreed, contending that the United States should instead be training Afghan forces. Admiral Mike Mullen agreed on this point, but insisted that Afghan forces would not be able to counter the Taliban insurgency for some years.

Mr. Harper, too, says that the emphasis should be on training. But he has welcomed President Obama's decision to send additional U.S. troops to Kandahar. In his private meetings and media interviews, the Prime Minister should expect to be questioned on whether he agrees with Congressional Democrats or with Admiral Mullen - and the Republican opposition - on the need for still more troops.

With U.S. domestic opposition to the war mounting, particularly in his own party, President Obama is reflecting on his position. And, while both he and Congressional leaders are no doubt grateful for Canadian sacrifices, they will be more interested in what Canada can do for them in the future.

In that sense, for the United States, Canada is now part of the Afghanistan problem. If we withdraw our combat troops in 2011, it could start a chain reaction among the NATO allies. And would make it more likely that the United States would have to supply any additional troops itself.

My guess is that Canada will eventually offer to help train Afghan forces after 2011 - and after the next federal election, whoever wins it. But, since the line between actual combat and training is blurry, Canadians should be under no illusions that this would mean an end to our involvement in the war, or an end to casualties.

Update Asked by a reporter after the meeting about Canada's decision to withdraw our combat troops in 2011, President Obama said: "I'm not worried about what will happen post-2011. I want to make sure that, given the commitments that have already been made and that are continuing, that we make sure that the Canadian presence there fits into a coherent whole and that it's accomplishing our goals."

The President may have been reflecting the worrisome briefings he's been receiving on the situation in Kandahar. As the Washington Post reported on Monday:

"The slow and quiet fall of Kandahar, the country's second-largest city, poses a complex new challenge for the NATO effort to stabilize Afghanistan. It is factoring prominently into discussions between Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, the overall U.S. and NATO commander, and his advisers about how many more troops to seek from Washington.

'Kandahar is at the top of the list,' one senior U.S. military official in Afghanistan said. "We simply do not have enough resources to address the challenges there."

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