What Stephen Harper does in Israel this week won't get much notice in the United States. But the differences between Washington and Ottawa on the Middle East are a contributing factor to a relationship that's in disrepair.
The Middle East? Why clash there? As observers such as former Canadian ambassador Derek Burney are asking, does this region really matter as much any more? It used to be vital because of its vast oil reserves and the Suez Canal. Today, the United States is well on the road to becoming energy self-sufficient, Canada has its own abundant fossil-fuel supplies and the Suez is no longer the critical transportation corridor it was.
But instead of Asia becoming a new focal point, Secretary of State John Kerry seems fixated on the Middle East. Washington takes exception to what it sees as Ottawa's reflexively toadyish approach to Israel and reflexively hostile approach to Iran. These splits add to the sizable bilateral friction already apparent over the oil sands, the Keystone XL pipeline, Washington's Buy America laws and other issues.
Countering the position of U.S. President Barack Obama's administration, Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird issued repeated warnings not to trust the Iranian regime's stated intent to reach a deal on its nuclear capacities. But a deal was reached, temporary though it may be.
Undeterred, Mr. Baird banged heads with Mr. Kerry last week on Keystone. Following Mr. Harper's declaration that he wouldn't take no for an answer on the pipeline, Mr. Baird said that Ottawa would like an answer right away, yes or no. Mr. Kerry replied that Canada will get a response when one is ready.
The Conservatives have a good case on Keystone and are right to be irked by the interminable delay. But looking at their own dealings, they might understand how politics intrudes upon the timing of decisions. Wasn't it John Baird who promised as far back as 2008 that emission regulations on the Canadian oil and gas sector were on the way? It's 2014 and those regulations – something Washington would like to see – are still pending.
The Conservatives no longer seem very concerned about irritating the Obama administration. They were always hesitant to take on the Democratic messiah because of his great popularity in Canada, but things have changed.
Conservatives sense that the President is wounded and take a measure of pleasure in it. Mr. Obama's health reform rollout was a disaster. Security leaks about surveillance of Americans have embarrassed his administration. Now a critical book by Mr. Obama's former defence secretary, Robert Gates, is attracting lots of attention.
Mr. Gates portrays Vice-President Joe Biden as an amusing motor-mouth who gets most everything wrong, and criticizes Mr. Obama's team for frequently challenging the word of the Pentagon's senior military leadership. Here, it is Mr. Gates who may be wrong. Has he checked the generals' track record over the years? How about Don Rumsfeld's Pentagon on Iraq? Or Robert MacNamara's Pentagon on Vietnam? Or John F. Kennedy's military advisers urging him to bomb Cuba off the map during the missile crisis? Or Dwight Eisenhower, a general himself, issuing a warning to beware the motives of the Pentagon? If history bears a lesson, it is that Mr. Obama should indeed be wary of the counsel of the Defence Department.
The new tensions in the Canada-U.S. relationship are a sign that Mr. Harper and Mr. Obama are losing patience with one another. Given their broad philosophical and personal differences, it's a wonder they've gotten along as decently as they have.
If he checks Mr. Gates's book, the Prime Minister will see that the President's men can be quite vindictive. If the President checks the Prime Minister's record, he will see that Mr. Harper can be, too. Bilaterally, things could very well get worse before they get better.