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On the issue of ballistic missile defence, as on so many others, Paul Martin has shown exceptionally poor leadership.

It has been clear since he became prime minister that, if Mr. Martin had his way, Canada would sign on to the U.S. system for protecting North America from missile attack. One of his leading aims when he took the job was to shore up Canada's relationship with the United States after the rift over the war in Iraq. Joining missile defence was a heaven-sent chance to do it. Since the early days of the Cold War, Canada has worked hand in hand with the United States on the defence of our shared continent. Missile defence is clearly in that tradition. What Washington was asking of Ottawa was remarkably modest: a mainly symbolic sign-on, with no risk or cost to this country.

If Mr. Martin had been wiser, he would have taken a position right at the start of his prime ministership and said yes, of course Canada will join. Instead, he delayed and, yes, dithered, allowing himself to be overmatched by opposition critics and a vocal minority of his own party. In the process, he showed himself too weak to prevail on an issue that affects our relationship with our closest ally, friend and trading partner.

When U.S. President George W. Bush urged him publicly to get on board, he squirmed. When the Opposition pressed him in the House of Commons, he said the government would make up its mind just as soon as. . . well, just as soon as the government made up its mind. Now, at last, we have a decision. The government will say no to Washington on missile defence.

Opponents of the system will hail Mr. Martin for standing up to the Americans. In fact, the decision flows from his refusal to take a stand against those very opponents. When Mr. Martin put his finger in the air over missile defence, he felt a chill. Voters were uneasy and getting more so. Quebeckers, in particular, seemed to dislike the idea of joining any scheme that reeked to them of U.S. militarism. Then there was the Liberal caucus, whose anti-American and pacifist branch was on a crusade against missile defence.

A stronger prime minister would have faced down these critics. He would have said to his caucus: Look, you may not like the idea of joining a U.S. defence program, but our friendship with the Americans is crucial and they are not asking very much here. I'm signing us up, so get on board.

A stronger prime minister would have gone to the country to argue his case. He would have pointed out that Washington was not asking Canada to bear any of the cost of missile defence. He would have pointed out that no anti-missile weapons would be based on Canadian soil. He would have pointed out that under the North American Aerospace Defence Command, Canada had always worked with the Americans to defend our continent from foreign threats, including missile attack. He would have pointed out that joining the system would give us the right to influence the program's development rather than sit passively on the sidelines.

A stronger prime minister would have done all these things. This is not a strong prime minister. Canada will pay the price.