Opposition leader Stephen Harper has been extremely critical of Martin's decision to opt out of missile defence even though of late his own party has refused to come out on one side or the other on the issue. They want to know more before making a decision, says Harper, and they blame Martin for not filling them in.
The Bush administration made major diplomatic errors in handling this topic with Canada. It asked for blanket endorsement of an open-ended US missile defense program, rather than for specific help with specific technical challenges and defensive weapons. This was a fundamental mistake, and the US has mostly itself to blame for the resulting fallout.
[Canadians] know what is in the Pentagon's long-term plan for missile defense systems. It isn't simply a pragmatic and modest defense against possible North Korean or Iranian threats, of the type now being deployed in California and Alaska. Although not yet formalized, it also envisions the possibility of a land-based and sea-based system that might be large enough to challenge China's deterrent (and even make some Russians nervous). And perhaps most controversial of all, it speaks of space weapons - be they small interceptor missiles or lasers to shoot down threats from wherever they might be launched.
These concepts remain red-flag topics in the great white north. Canadians are not wasting their time wallowing over the demise of cold war arms control; they are worried that the Rumsfeld Pentagon's missile defense efforts might damage future great power relations and might also result in the near-term weaponization of space - a prospect that most countries, including Canada, find highly objectionable.
I gave a talk on missile defense in Toronto last month, and was stunned by two things: the large turnout, which said much more about the degree of Canadian anxiety over the subject than my draw as a speaker, and the degree of confusion in Canada over just what the US president could have been requesting when he visited last fall.
In the two months since the Bush visit, American diplomats still had not clarified the subject for their good allies to the north - and now the US ambassador has had the audacity to publicly criticize the Canadian prime minister for his recent decision.
What Bush administration officials need to remember is that they almost surely could not get blanket endorsement for all of the above missile defense systems even in the US. Congress has provided funding just for deployment of a limited land-based system and for research and development of other possible concepts. It has not bought into a grandiose architecture of the type that many Pentagon planners still envision. Nor is Bush unwise enough to request such an open-ended endorsement from Congress.
Indeed, his budget request for 2006 cuts missile defense, in recognition of the facts that the relevant technologies are proving slow to develop and that other, nonmissile threats seem more pressing. Yet it was at this moment the president asked Canada for something he probably could not get from the Republican-controlled legislature in his own country.
Why are so many people up in arms at Canada's refusal to give a blanket endorsement to a vague American plan that even Republican legislators haven't endorsed? If Harper and the Conservatives feel they don't have enough information on the subject, maybe they're looking to the wrong country's leader for answers.