Harper missed an opportunity by ducking meeting with McCain

The PM could have formed a personal bond with the man who might be next president

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The Gazette, Monday, June 23, 2008

John McCain can go on a fact-finding tour of the Middle East, and everyone agrees it's a smart move by a candidate who has just clinched his party's nomination for the presidency of the United States.

He can make the grand tour of Europe, stopping in to see Sarko at the Elysée in Paris, and Gordon Brown at Downing St. in London, and no one thinks anything of it.

But let him come to Canada, as part of his strategy of enhancing his presidential credentials as the candidate of experience on foreign policy, and the question on everyone's mind in Ottawa is whether the prime minister should receive him.

After all, we wouldn't want to be seen as taking sides in a U.S. election, especially taking sides with the Republican opponent of the Democratic golden child, Barack Obama. Especially not Stephen Harper, who doesn't need any more associations with the party of George W. Bush, or any reminders of the NAFTA diplomatic memo leak that embarrassed Obama in the Ohio primary race.

This wouldn't happen in an adult country, but this is Canada, the most self-absorbed country in the world, where it is always about us, even when it isn't.

And McCain's visit to Ottawa on Friday wasn't about us. It was about polishing his presidential resumé, about getting a good foreign-policy story into the news cycle back in the United States. It was about resonance with his voters, not ours, particularly independents and Reagan Democrats who might swing a close election in his favour come November.

Along the way, it might have been about reminding Obama of the moment when he told primary voters in Ohio and Pennsylvania not what they needed to hear, but what they wanted to hear on trade, echoing Hillary Clinton's pledge to tear up the NAFTA if Canada and Mexico wouldn't re-open it.

Of course, the Democrats' issue isn't with Canada, by far the largest customer of every primary state from March to the end of the race in June. Their issue is with China and India, the emerging trade powers of Asia, the offshoring nations Lou Dobbs is always ranting about on CNN.

For McCain, Obama's equivocations on trade presented an opportunity for a "compare and contrast" in his Ottawa speech, comparing his own record as a supporter of free trade going back to the 1988 Canada-U.S. Free Trade Agreement, and contrasting himself as a conviction politician as opposed to Obama playing to the gallery.

Extolling the virtues of free trade, as McCain did at the sold-out Château Laurier lunch on Friday, had nothing to do with Canada as anything other than a friend and reliable partner of the United States, and in this instance a stage for a story line that resonated back in the U.S.

But no, being Canadians, we had to make the whole thing about us. Our media and the opposition parties used the occasion to revisit the embarrassing NAFTA memo affair, which only underscores the point about the immature and unsophisticated character of Ottawa's political class.

For Harper, it represented an opportunity to duck.

When McCain's visit was scheduled last month, Harper was supposed to be out of town, travelling back from Israel and Jordan on a visit that was later postponed. In any event, Harper was out of town, visiting Premier Brad Wall in Saskatchewan.

This was a bad call by Harper's office. He should have received McCain in his office or for a working breakfast at 24 Sussex, and would have enhanced his own international credentials. McCain is no clone of Dubya, and has strong credentials on trade, the environment, and praises for Canada's role in the NATO mission in Afghanistan. By meeting him, Harper would have established personal equity in the event McCain wins the presidency. Instead, the prime minister was busy on a trip to Saskatoon.

As for the opposition, in the non-partisan nature of these visits, the U.S. embassy could easily have arranged a half-hour for Liberal leader Stéphane Dion with McCain. They could have had an agreeable chat on climate change, and it would have enhanced Dion's own credentials on foreign-policy credentials.

As for equal time for Obama, the message would have been, any time he wanted to include Ottawa on any summer tour of foreign capitals, we'd be happy to see him, too. Instead, an opportunity became a missed opportunity.

It's all about us. And you thought the girls of Sex and the City were wrapped up in themselves.

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