Obama's trip to Canada will highlight differences on Afghanistan

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Administration officials are setting the stage for Barack Obama’s trip on Thursday to Canada -- his first travel outside the United States as President.

But the timing of the visit highlights policy differences between the two countries over the war in Afghanistan.

Policy differences and warm atmospherics

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The Obama administration stressed the warm atmospherics surrounding the day long journey. President Obama is “very eager to make the trip" to Ottawa, according to Denis McDonough, Director of Strategic Communications for the National Security Council. Speaking on a conference call with reporters Tuesday afternoon, McDonough said the president was “touched and honored” to be invited to make the trip.

But Tuesday afternoon, after the conference call, the White House announced that Obama had approved a request from Defense Secretary Robert Gates to send additional US troops to Afghanistan this spring and summer. "The situation in Afghanistan and Pakistan demands urgent attention and swift action," the President said in a statement. "The Taliban is resurgent in Afghanistan, and Al Qaeda supports the insurgency and threatens America from its safe-haven along the Pakistani border."

Sending 17,000 more troops

So the US will send an estimated 17,000 more troops, adding to the 30,000 it has already deployed. A Marine Expeditionary Brigade of some 8,000 will go first, followed this summer by an Army Stryker Brigade of 9,000. By contrast, the Canadian government plans to withdraw its 2,500 combat troops in Afghanistan after suffering 100 combat deaths there.

Obama used an interview Tuesday morning with the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation to help smooth the discussion with Prime Minister Stephen Harper on Afghanistan.

More than just fighting

The President told the CBC that the United States would apply a more comprehensive, diplomatic approach to the war. “I’m absolutely convinced that you cannot solve the problem of Afghanistan, the Taliban, and the spread of extremism in the region solely through military means,” Obama said in an interview conducted in the White House Map Room, on the executive mansion's ground floor. “We’re going to have to use diplomacy, we’re going to have to use development," he said.

While far apart on Afghanistan, other issues unite the two countries. The US has “no larger trading partner” than Canada and the country is “our largest energy supplier,” McDonough said.

Trade, “cooperation on clean energy technology” and the “global security challenges we jointly face” will be the main agenda items when Obama meets with Prime Minister Harper, McDonough said.

Becoming better friends

One goal for the visit is to allow Harper and Obama to “deepen their personal relationship,” McDonough said. He downplayed the tension that might arise from “Buy American” provisions in the economic stimulus bill Obama signed on Tuesday in Denver. The stimulus measure specifies not taking steps that violate international law, so there is “no need to take umbrage or feel uneasy,” the NSC spokesman said.

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