Did the Conservative government to our north try to fry Barack Obama?

An unassuming foreign country has injected itself into the U.S. presidential race: Canada. And though the United States’ neighbor to the north used to pine for the day when someone in Washington would actually acknowledge its existence, with the controversy swirling over the contentious NAFTA discussion between Barack Obama’s economic advisor, Austan Goolsbee, and a Canadian diplomat in Chicago, the government of Canada isn't enjoying its central star role in the U.S. presidential race.

And yet, one big question remains unanswered about NAFTA-gate: What, exactly, was the Canadian government trying to do? Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s Conservative government, which came to power two years ago, has worked hard to improve relations with Washington. Harper has said that he wants Canada’s voice to be heard on the international stage, but not this way. For the Harper government, the relationship with the United States is the top foreign policy objective, and right now, all the optics are bad.

First and foremost, the media has identified his chief of staff, Ian Brodie, as the person who kicked off of NAFTA-gate. Harper’s domestic political foes are advancing a narrative that has already angered Democrats, and would be bad news for bilateral relations: that Harper was trying to do a favor for the GOP by tossing a piece of political dynamite in front of Obama’s train as it was barreling down on Ohio.

“They will do what is necessary to help Republicans. They’re a nasty, unprincipled bunch, who are incompetent to boot,” Bob Rae, foreign affairs critic and member of the opposition Liberal party, wrote on his blog. “Is it possible that the prime minister himself knew about this information and authorized the leaks in order to discredit the campaign of Mr. Obama for president of the United States?” New Democratic Party leader Jack Layton asked.

All of this forced Harper into issuing a denial--that neither Brodie nor anyone in his office had anything to do with the leak. Harper called the leak regrettable and "blatantly unfair" to Obama's campaign, and has promised a full internal investigation to find the source. But his attempts to distance himself and his office aren’t ringing true to some. As one opposition Liberal MP correctly noted, leaks from the Harper government are rare. It is well known that Harper’s office keeps cabinet ministers--not to mention diplomats abroad--on a tight leash. These days, even the most seasoned of former diplomats check with Ottawa before talking to the media.

In office, Harper has had no problem getting along with the Bush White House or the Republican Party. In many ways, that’s bad news for Harper, because George W. Bush is no more popular in Canada than he is at home or in most of the other countries of the world. Harper’s brand of Conservatism is not the traditional “Progressive Conservatism” that has governed Canada in the past. It is borne out of the Reform Party movement of Prairie grassroots populism. Though not as far to the right of the political spectrum as U.S. Republicans, many of Canada’s new Conservatives share similar social conservative values.

But the political stars didn’t always line up so conveniently along the 49th parallel. For the first five years of the Bush administration, relations chilled with Canada’s Liberal government, which was unable to conceal its disdain for the Bush Republicans. The charges that a Conservative Canadian government is trying to hurt the Democrats echo an incident from the 2000 campaign, when Canada’s ambassador to Washington, Raymond Chretien, a nephew of then-Liberal PM Jean Chretien, was widely criticized for showing support for the Democrats. “We know Vice President Gore,” he said in a speech. “He knows us. He’s a friend of Canada.”

Did Harper or his team try to meddle in the Ohio primary for political or ideological reasons? We will likely never know unless something like a smoking gun is produced--an e-mail or phone record that categorically links Brodie to Goolsbee, et al. But setting aside the issue of leaked diplomatic cables, it is no secret that the anti-NATFA rhetoric that Obama and Hillary Clinton were using in Ohio did not charm Canada’s Conservatives.

It was the old “Progressive Conservative” party that introduced free trade with the United States in 1988 prior to the three-way North American Free Trade Agreement in 1993, and Canada’s new Conservatives are ardent free traders themselves. They want more free trade deals and are pursuing Colombia, though the move is politically contentious. Less than an hour after Harper was trying to smooth over the NAFTA contretemps amid the heckling on the floor of the House of Commons, International Trade Minister David Emerson was giving a tough-love defense of free trade in the foyer outside. “We’re not interfering in any democratic process,” he said, before continuing, “There isn’t a Canadian alive that doesn’t depend directly or indirectly on the benefits that have occurred from trade and particularly from NAFTA. So it’s fundamental to Canada’s interest.”

That is exactly the sort of dialogue that has always made for solid relations between Washington and Ottawa. As the mantra goes, good friends and neighbors can disagree as long as the tone is civil. What always causes problems--to the detriment of Canada’s national interest--is when the little guy to the north is perceived to be poking the proverbial stick in the eye of the elephant to the south. That’s what Canadians are concerned about now. You can bet that President McCain or President Clinton will remember this incident, though it will likely spark a faint smile. In the case of President Obama, the memory will sting for a long time to come.

Michael Blanchfield is the senior foreign affairs writer for the Canwest News Service, based in Parliament Hill in Ottawa. He covered the 2000 U.S. presidential election.

By Michael Blanchfield