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Waiting for an Upbraiding

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Obama Obama in Ottawa by farfando1.

By Matt Wells

Growing up in Ottawa, I can say that the city, despite being Canada's capital, with a metropolitan-area population approaching about a million people, still very much feels like a small town. At heart, it is still just another logging community in the heavily-wooded Ottawa River valley. This is what gives the place a certain charm, but it can also make it a bit embarrassing at times. When anyone with any sort of celebrity status shows up, for instance, a giddy, "Waiting for Guffman"-type mentality descends on the city. The Ottawa Citizen, the ostensibly upstanding local broadsheet newspaper, once did a full front-page spread when Carmen Electra came to film a movie in the area. No, I'm not kidding.

When word hit, then, that newly-minted American president Barack Obama would make his first out-of-country visit there, Ottawa residents went positively goofy. Despite the fact that he was never scheduled to make any public appearances, that didn't stop folks from crowding in front of the federal Parliament buildings, just so they could say that they were there when Obama turned up. One reason for this excitement is that our Prime Minister, Stephen Harper, is the Republican-loving leader of the ruling Conservative party. So while many in the States look to Obama to fix the many messes left behind by his predecessor, people on the port side of politics here also see him as a sort of proxy Saviour. But was Obama really going to upbraid Harper for being such a big bad right-winger? Would he help our generally grumpy PM see the light? Unfortunately, those that expected that such a conversion would take place were left largely disappointed.

Among a number of complaints, there are a couple of major issues that cause extreme disquiet for Canadians of the left and centre. The first is the interminable war in Afghanistan. The Conservatives essentially bullied parliament into two extensions of our troop commitment in the dangerous Kandahar province of the country, but at the same time vowed to pull out of the place completely by 2011. The second is the environmental mayhem caused by the extraction of "dirty" oil in the vast oil sands of Alberta, Canada's most prosperous and arguably smuggest province.

Harper and his Conservative party have been riding a wave of Western discontent for a number of years now. The party itself was formed out of a merger between the western populist Reform Party and the failing, but national and generally socially liberal Progressive Conservative Party. The new beast has built itself up upon the same foundation of hate that made the Republicans such a powerful force in the States: divide-and-conquer politics, social conservatism, laissez-faire capitalism, climate change denial, and, since 9/11, incessant rhetoric about security and "freedom".

Such a toxic ideology has meant that the government has largely ignored the environmental impact of the oil sands projects, while trumpeting the money they bring in. Of course they forget to mention that most oil sands development projects have been directly subsidized by the federal government. And they also don't mention that the work and energy required to extract oil out of such dirty sands means that the business is only profitable when oil is trading at at least $100 a barrel. So where the sands go from here is anyone's guess, but at the moment they are an environmental nightmare happily sponsored by our taxpayer dollars.

The same ideology, of course, has allowed the government to call anyone who dares question our efforts in Afghanistan a terrorist-lover, a freedom-hater, and so forth. Their main bragging point on this issue was that little girls were allowed to go to school because we helped protect them from the Taliban; that line was quickly dropped after more than dozen such girls were attacked with acid on their way to one such school. Despite years of lingering in Kandahar, and despite so many sunny reports about how well things have been going, the fact remains that the place is as dangerous as ever, and our presence seems to provide only temporary, palliative care at the best of times.

So there you have it: two issues that have been gnawing at liberal minds in Canada for years. So America's newest superhero was going to swoop in and save us all, right? Well, not quite.

To be fair, of course, it is not Obama's job to come in and tell our leader how to behave; we certainly didn't want his predecessor to do that, either. But there are some troubling signs that Obama is ready to work lockstep with Canada's Conservatives, giving both tacit and explicit approval to their policies and ideas. Worse, regarding Afghanistan, he appears to want us to linger longer than even Harper and his gang had promised. And to make things yet more irritating, our own left-leaning and centrist media, as starry-eyed as so many others by America's new leader, seems perfectly willing to give him a pass on all this.

Before dropping by for his almost embarrassingly brief visit (embarrassing to those who created such hoopla around it, that is), Obama gave an interview to the CBC, our national radio and television broadcasting concern. Both the oil sands and Afghanistan came up as major talking points. And the answers Obama gave were not exactly comforting.

Regarding the oil sands projects, Obama first connected their environmental impact to that of America's coal industry in a rather odd way. "What we know is that oil sands create a big carbon footprint," he said, but then later added, "The United States is the Saudi Arabia of coal, but we have our own homegrown problems in terms of dealing with a cheap energy source that creates a big carbon footprint." Perhaps Obama forgot the old maxim that two wrongs don't make a right.

Following up on this, Obama dragged out the newest Holy Grail of environmentally-damaging energy production: carbon sequestration. He "stressed that technology like carbon-capture-and-storage could mitigate the impact" caused by both oil and coal. More on this later.

With Afghanistan, Obama's words were even more alarming. To quote the Globe and Mail's take on the interview, "the President said he won't press Prime Minister Harper for Canadian troops to stay past the 2011 deadline set for their withdrawal from Kandahar. But he also hinted that there's still time for progress in Afghanistan to change Canada's mind." To quote Obama himself, "I think, you know, we've got until 2011, according to the Canadian legislature, and I think it's important for the Canadian legislature and the people of Canada to get a sense that what they're doing is productive."

There you have it. Remember that the Conservative government was only able to pass the extension of our commitments in the country to 2011 by vowing to not come back cap in hand come, say, 2010, asking to stay even longer. The deal was 2011, and then out. But now Obama seems to expect that he can convince us to stay longer by showing us signs of "progress". This in a country that hasn't seen much progress politically or economically in, oh, let's be generous and say a millennium, despite the best efforts of just about every empire in the book, whether Mongolian, Russian, British, and now American.

Perhaps just as alarming as all of this, however, is the fact that such words were treated with kid gloves by the press. Admittedly, the Globe and Mail has been a persistent supporter of the war in Afghanistan, albeit with heavy reservations. It has always come down hard on any attempt to explain away our obligations to address environmental issues, however. Yet the article in which this interview appeared stated that, "the soft-sell tone – on trade, oil and Afghanistan – is part of the broader message that he [Obama] is trying to get across on his first foreign trip as President…that the U.S. is trying to rebuild its alliances."

Excuse me? I don't care if any world leader comes here to try and sell us on bad ideas, whether they beat our PM with a baseball bat or offer him flowers and candy. Bad ideas are bad ideas, no matter "softly" they are sold to us.

No matter. Obama arrived in Ottawa on Thursday, and the locals were about as jubilant and fawning as expected. To make things even better, the man wandered about in public more than everyone was led to believe. Folks were delighted that he went to the downtown farmer's market and ate a "beaver tail". Sorry, that's not nearly as exotic and/or as scandalous as it sounds. A beaver tail is a locally beloved sugary pastry confection made by a chain that goes by the same name (it's also the place where many local teens get their first lousy minimum-wage jobs – I bucked the trend and went to a Pizza Hut, which had the added advantage of being located beside a pool hall that didn't check IDs).

The fun
didn't stop there. The crowd at the Parliament buildings reveled in the fact that Obama, after exiting his limo, kept Harper outside longer than expected so they could wave to the president's fans. Given Harper's acute awkwardness in most public situations – and the fact that nobody gathered there came to see him – it was admittedly an amusing moment. Throughout it all, media outlets, both on television and on-line, were on hand to give us minute-to-minute updates of the day's proceedings. But most of what happened Thursday was indeed behind closed doors, so what we got was a lot of silly guesswork and rehashed clips of the few moments when the president was out and about.

In the end, at least, Harper and Obama gave us a press conference. So what did we hear? On the environmental front, the two agreed to have a "clean energy dialogue". Now agreeing to a "dialogue" at some undetermined time in the future is basically political speak for "we're going to do nothing for the moment, but make it sound like we are." Even the G & M had to admit that this was "a relatively minor step in bilateral co-operation", but then added that "that cleaning up the environment can be a profitable of [sic] tackling the worldwide economic meltdown." So, wait, this is good news?

Well, the G & M went on to say that the two men repeatedly offered up the old carbon sequestration idea as the way to save the planet. For those who don't know, carbon sequestration basically means finding a way to capture the carbon emitted during the processes of extracting dirty oil, coal and whatnot, digging a really big, deep hole in the ground, and sticking the carbon inside said hole. This has actually been done in a couple of oil wells and a coal power plant in North Dakota, with reasonable success. So is the whole thing as wonderful as advertised?

Well, not really. First of all, there's a big difference between sticking a bit of carbon in the ground at a few select sites, and trying to capture all the carbon emissions in the world and finding safe places to store everything underground. The earth below us tends to shift and move a lot, unfortunately, and finding top-grade sites for all the carbon we're producing now would probably be an impossible task (the aforementioned North Dakota site already has to pipe its carbon to a distant location to keep it safe). And then there's the extra energy involved in the sequestration process. Estimates vary on this one, but it's always a lot (see "The Weather Makers" by Tim Flannery for a good costing out with regards to coal). So how are we going to produce this extra energy, and who is going to pay for it? Questions unanswered.

As for Afghanistan, we are told that Obama "didn't use the visit to press Canada on extending its combat troop commitment in Afghanistan beyond 2011." Okay, so does that mean he will sometimes in the future? Probably, given the semantics of the phrasing used. Yet even the Toronto Star, arguably the most liberal mainstream paper in the country, let Obama get away with this one, headlining its story about the visit with "Obama reassures Canada on trade and Afghanistan," and stating that Obama "didn't press Harper to keep Canadian troops in Afghanistan beyond the 2011 deadline set by Parliament." Again, semantics. But the Star writers seem to think that we're out of the woods. Why would nice, understanding Obama force us to do something we wouldn't want to do, right?

Here's the real punch line, though. Many Canadians are proud of the fact that we "stood up" to big bad George W. Bush and refused to get into the war in Iraq. Those who support the Afghan effort take this further, pointing out how we exerted out own independent decision-making in fighting the "right" war instead of the wrong one. But as revealed in "The Unexpected War", a 2007 work by Janice Gross Stein and Eugene Lang, the Bush government really couldn't have cared less what we did with Iraq, but did its best to coerce us into a riskier commitment in Afghanistan (we had had a minimal troop presence there since the American invasion, but not in the extreme danger zone of Kandahar). Our independence on this front was an illusion – we were sweet-talked by the Americans into doing what we did. One can only venture to guess what will happen when Obama begins to press the same issue.

What's most depressing about this visit is that our Conservative party feels absolutely vindicated with regards to the very positions that Obama's supporters loath. Obama gave the thumbs-up to the oil sands, with the promise that big holes in the ground will solve the environmental issues (conveniently, the issue of the vast ecological destruction that the oil sands projects are currently creating was ignored). Of Afghanistan, he appears to be even more hawkish than Harper. If any upbraiding is to come from Obama's side, one suspects it will be because we won't commit to his post-2011 vision. The media sees this as a "softening" of relations. As for Ottawans, well, they're still buzzing about that beaver tail.

photo by farfando1