Staples op-ed: Why Martin had little choice but to say ‘no’ to BMD

After nearly two years of Canada-U.S. talks on Canadian participation in the U.S. missile defence program, Paul Martin has finally made a decision–Canada will not join the program.

Already, those voices that had been pushing for Canada to join the editorialists, the retired generals, the former ambassadors, and the CEOs–are crying foul. They accuse the government of failing to convince Canadians of why Canada needs to join the U.S. missile system–of not taking leadership on the issue.

But the fact is Paul Martin had nowhere left to turn. Liberals have never been united behind Paul Martin’s own stated preference for joining missile defence. At the party’s convention this week, he will face an anti-missile defence resolution supported by the Quebec caucus, the Women’s caucus, the powerful Liberal Youth wing, and much of the party’s grassroots membership. Insiders expect the resolution to pass handily.

Should he have decided to endure that humiliation, soon afterward Martin would have had to present a motion to join missile defence before Parliament for a non-binding vote, a motion that would have contradicted his own party’s policy. The NDP and the Bloc Québécois are staunchly opposed to missile defence–so no support there. Votes from the typically pro-defence Conservatives could have provided enough support to pass the motion.

But this is where it gets interesting: the Conservatives have been withholding their support for missile defence, insisting instead on seeing the terms of the deal first. This so enraged Paul Martin that he reportedly complained about Stephen Harper’s politicking to U.S. President George W. Bush last fall, who in turn urged Harper to support Martin on missile defence.

Recent events confirmed Liberal fears about the Conservatives. On an important, but unrelated vote this month, the Conservatives switched their negotiated position with the Liberals at the last moment and defeated a government motion. The government learned an important lesson–that Conservative support for any issue was never assured.

But ironically it was the Americans themselves who denied what Paul Martin needed the most to sell missile defence. The U.S. ruled out a Canadian seat at the table when they placed control over the system securely in the U.S.-only Northern Command–not the joint Canada-U.S. NORAD command. And during Bush’s visit to Ottawa, the President refused to rule out weaponizing space, despite Paul Martin’s request during their private meeting.

For sure, Paul Martin could have just made the decision to join outright and pre-empted the Liberal convention and a messy vote in Parliament. But he would have drawn the ire of his own party and even risked anon-confidence motion in the government, provoking an election that would have boosted the NDP and the Bloc Québécois.

But ultimately it was the Canadian public that Paul Martin could not ignore. Just weeks before last year’s election Liberal strategists admitted that missile defence was a “vote loser” for them. By last fall the first in a series of polls showed a strong majority opposed to missile defence. This month came the final blow: a surprising two out of three Canadians told pollsters that missile defence was an issue worth going to an election over (by comparison, only about one in three felt the same way about same-sex marriage).

The fact is that the more Canadians learned about the missile shield, the more public opinion turned against it. Missile defence proponents were unsuccessful at convincing anyone that there was a missilethreat against Canada, and Defence Minister Bill Graham’s desperate attempt to stoke fears of U.S. economic retaliation backfired. But in January one newspaper said, about the risks of a renewed arms race and space weapons, “More and more, it is the missile defence opponents who are getting their message out.”

Two significant incidents moved public opinion against missile defence during the last year. First was the unabashedly pro-missile defence letter sent from then-Defence Minister David Pratt to U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld calling for Canada’s “closest possible” participation in the program. News of that letter prompted thousands of Canadians, along with church leaders and cultural figures such as Sarah McLachlan and Mel Hurtig, to write to the Prime Minister’s office in protest.

The second incident was the re-election of wildly unpopular George W. Bush in November. Bush wasted little time in coming to Canada to publicly cajole Canada into joining his missile program. Canadians still deeply oppose his belligerent foreign policies and distrust his intentions for the missile shield. That was the final straw for most Canadians.

Last week, Paul Martin tried to soften the blow of saying “no” to missile defence by talking tough against Iran in front of President Bush and his NATO colleagues, and promising billions to the military in its largest budget increase in twenty years. There’s little doubt he will continue to try to curry favour in Washington by deepening military and security ties. However, missile defence opponents will be buoyed by their David-like victory over the missile defence Goliath, and will be watching the Martin government very closely every step of the way.

This op-ed by Steven Staples was published in the Hill Times on February 28, 2005.

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