The Bush administration turns the page

he U.S. has made it clear that it wants to end its squabble with Canada

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The Gazette, Wednesday, March 29, 2006

When Stephen Harper's chief of staff, Ian Brodie, and the head of his transition team, former ambassador to the U.S,. Derek Burney, dropped by the West Wing four weeks ago, they found themselves sitting across the table from the top three White House officials, Andy Card, Karl Rove and Steve Hadley.

It was normal for Card, who resigned yesterday as the White House chief of staff, to be in a meeting with a counterpart. But there was no need for Rove, the deputy chief of staff, to be there, except in his role as President George W. Bush's top political strategist - Bush's Brain. Hadley, the White House national-security adviser, could easily have sent a desk officer in his place.

When the meeting ended, as the Canadians got up to leave, Card informed them the president wanted to see them in the Oval Office. Though it was only a quick hello, it was the sort of courtesy seldom, if ever, extended to visiting staff.

The message was clear: The Bush administration, at the highest level, wanted to turn the page and rebuild its relationship with Canada. That was also clearly the message in Bush's interviews yesterday with the CanWest papers and CTV's Washington correspondent, Tom Clark, both of which left the competition fuming. (Note to the U.S. Embassy: In future interview recommendations to the White House, bear in mind the French-language media.)

It was a kinder, gentler Bush who sat down with CanWest's Sheldon Alberts and said he wanted to send "a strong signal" on resolving the softwood lumber dispute, and acknowledged his own responsibility for "skepticism" and "concern" expressed by Canadians over his foreign policy of American exceptionalism.

And when Harper meets Bush in Cancun tomorrow on the margins of a two-day NAFTA summit hosted by Mexico, the prime minister can expect to hear Bush thank Canada for stepping up in two dangerous security roles, in Afghanistan and Haiti, as well as for its role in supervising the Iraq elections and training Iraqi security officials in Jordan.

Burden-sharing is an important theme in Washington, irrespective of whether the Republicans or Democrats are in the White House or control Congress. And after Harper's own visit to our troops in Afghanistan - complete with a sleepover with elite forces in the desert - there is no doubt in Washington that Canada is shouldering its share for rebuilding failed states, while standing aside from the bungled U.S. occupation of Iraq.

As for the bilateral discussion, Harper has three items at the top of his list: softwood lumber, the American passport initiative at the border and the renewal of the NORAD agreement. The

NORAD renewal is pretty much a done deal, and can be ready for signing on Harper's first visit to the White House.

The Bush administration's plan to require everyone entering the U.S. from Canada and Mexico to carry passports or secure documents won't come into effect until 2008, which leaves a lot of time to negotiate a less stringent ID regime. Visitors entering the U.S. by air from Canada are already effectively required to show passports, but car passengers may still enter on a driver's licence for cross-border shopping in Plattsburgh or Burlington.

Canada has plenty of friends on Capitol Hill, including the new Canada Caucus, all of whom have vested economic interests at stake. For example, Hillary Clinton, facing Senate re-election this year in the run-up to her 2008 presidential bid, would be hearing from precisely those New York state border towns benefiting from cross-border shopping driven by the strong Canadian dollar.

On softwood, there will no resolution of the long-running trade dispute in Cancun. But both sides need a process to help them move off entrenched positions, and the appointment of special envoys reporting directly to the PM and the president might do the trick.

Or the two countries could agree to stop litigating and return to negotiating with a set date for settling the dispute. For that to happen, the U.S. would have to agree to return billions of dollars of export duties slapped on Canadian exporters.

When the current softwood dispute began five years ago, our dollar was trading near historic lows around 63 cents. Canada's share of the U.S. market was then 33 per cent. Five years later, with the dollar around 86 cents, our share of the market is still 33 per cent. So Canada's market share is driven by demand for northern grades of wood, not by the exchange rate. And that demand will only increase as the U.S. re-builds the hurricane-torn Gulf Coast.

In any event, it's a new beginning for the world's most important bilateral relationship. It is indeed possible, as Harper has said, to disagree without being disagreeable. He is investing in renewing excellent relations with the U.S. It's up to the Bush administration to deliver.

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