The Métropolitain

Why Harper got it right on McCain

By David T. Jones on July 10, 2008

Cynics are inclined to conclude that a government that makes the right decision is akin to the proverbial blind pig finding an acorn. But such pigs do find acorns and, in the instance of the decision by the Harper government to see Senator John McCain during his June 20 visit to Ottawa, the Tories got it right.

Besieged on the Left by those who wanted the Tories to treat McCain as if he were a SARS-afflicted pedophile and those on the Right who preferred granting him Canadian citizenship plus an Order of Canada, the Government played it straight. The Prime Minister was unavailable, having another commitment out of town. Hence the senator met with the Acting (now permanent) Foreign Minister David Emerson (who was then also minister for international trade and the NAFTA files) and with the out-going Chief of Defense Staff Rick Hillier. Perfectly appropriate; punctilious; correct; and mutually informative.

Think first of the logic on left. They take as a given that Senator Barak Obama will win the U.S. presidency in November, hence the Tories are supposed to curry favor with him by refusing to see Senator McCain. Supposedly, in a convoluted exercise earlier this year, a Tory official leaked a memo from the Chicago consulate reporting that an Obama senior economic advisor privately assured the Canadian official that Obama's campaign rhetoric against NAFTA was just that--campaign rhetoric. A formal investigation of the leak developed--nothing; oh yes, lotza finger pointing and intimations, but regarding specific facts--nothing. Nevertheless, not seeing McCain would be compensation (and implicit admission of guilt) to the Obama camp.

Even supposing this contretemps was a nefarious plot by Tory operatives to weaken Obama, ultimately (somehow) for Senator McCain's benefit, what was the theoretical consequence? Would "President Obama" tear up the NAFTA treaty to spite Ottawa and scorn "dirty oil" from Alberta? Require NAFTA re-negotiators to mutter "Green Shift" mantras before each session? Not permit Canadian negotiators bathroom breaks? Obviously not, and now, to no surprise, Obama has implied that his anti-NAFTA rhetoric was indeed rhetoric. Under any circumstance, "President Obama" (having no personal Canada experience) will employ a team of professional advisors to devise bilateral policy benefiting the United States on issues at hand, from NAFTA to softwood lumber to mad cows. And then the negotiating will begin.

But more essentially, there were ostensibly serious Canadians arguing that a country that constantly whines of being neglected/ignored by the United States should refuse to meet one of the two individuals with a serious chance of being the next president. Let us suppose the lightening strikes and much-discounted John McCain wins the election (remember he is not Ralph Nader). Would Canadians prefer to be in the position of being remembered as having gratuitously insulted him by refusing to meet? Did you want to be regarded as dumber than leaders in Israel, France, the UK, Mexico, and Colombia—to list just a few—who thought it useful to take the measure of the man?

Even if defeated in his presidential bid, Senator McCain will still be the leader of the Republican Party and therefore one of the most important political figures in the United States.

And serious Canadians argued that members of the government shouldn’t meet with him? When they meet with foreign officials with whom many individuals would not wish to share a room? Why if Senator McCain arrived in Ottawa with hands dripping gore to the elbows, he would be less odious than some with whom Canadian government officials have met over the decades.

In a passing conversation with a senior member of the Liberal Party, I asked, "If the Liberals were the government, would you meet with McCain?" The answer was an instant positive along with a personal endorsement that Liberal leader Stephane Dion should attempt to see him. The global ground rule in diplomacy, politics, economics or whatever remains constant: you meet with those that you seek to influence.