WASHINGTON — The Liberal Party government of Prime Minister Paul Martin in Canada told the Bush administration last week that it will not endorse the US plan for national missile defense.
Many are viewing this as a slap in the face from Ottawa to Washington, and a change in the position Canada seemed to be taking a year ago. They expect it to poison relations between the two neighbors - ensuring, among other things, that next month's three-way summit with Mexican President Vicente Fox will fail to make progress in broadening NAFTA. It would seem that the knee-jerk liberal Canadians just could not get over their nostalgia for the ABM Treaty, as well as their visceral dislike of missile-defense systems.
This interpretation is badly mistaken. 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.
The problem really began in late fall. Shortly after gaining reelection on the strength of a campaign in which he spoke plainly and forthrightly to the American people about national security, President Bush took the same attitude up north. Although he'd promised beforehand not to bring it up, during a state visit to Ottawa Mr. Bush nonetheless asked Prime Minister Martin to support US missile defense efforts.
On its face, the request probably struck Bush as eminently reasonable. After all, any system the US developed would protect Canada too, making it natural that Ottawa would offer at least minimal support and political blessing.
During the cold war, Canada cooperated with the US on air defense, making missile defense seem a natural successor. And Canada had recently agreed to cooperate with the US at the NORAD air defense command in Colorado, tracking not only traditional threats from aircraft but possible missile launches against North America as well.
But Canadians, who have followed the American missile defense debate closely since Ronald Reagan's "star wars" Strategic Defense Initiative, did not hear Bush's request in such innocuous terms. They 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.
If Bush had wanted help with a specific missile defense test, further cooperation at NORAD, the right for a US ship hosting a missile defense radar to call at Canadian ports, or something else specific and finite, he probably could have gotten it. But instead, he asked for the moon, and was surprised when the answer was "no."
It is time to walk this subject back. For now, Canada doesn't want to support the US further on missile defense. That's fine, because there's nothing more the US needs to ask Ottawa to do at the moment. Let the issue cool, proceed with other business such as trade, cooperation against terrorist threats, and NATO operations in Afghanistan (where Canada has contributed enormously) - and revisit this subject when there is something finite and reasonable to request.
• Michael O'Hanlon, author with James Lindsay of 'Defending America: The Case for Limited Ballistic Missile Defense,' is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.