21 December 2000
U.S. won't accept `no´ on Star Wars
National Affairs - James Travers
Toronto Star Columnist
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OTTAWA - FOR A MISSILE system designed to defend North America, the proposed United States ``Son of Star Wars´´ project is proving remarkably destructive.

In separate but overlapping visits here this week, Russian President Valdimir Putin and French President Jacques Chirac used similar language to condemn the $60 billion U.S. project at the centre of president-elect George W. Bush's defence policy.

Evoking memories of times better forgotten, the two leaders warned the plan to target missiles in space would lead to nuclear proliferation and a new arms race.

Putin and Chirac, along with much of the rest of the world, are understandably worried that Bush's commitment to the National Missile Defence (NMD) will destroy the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile treaty, reverse the painfully slow process toward neutralizing the world's nuclear arsenal and put international security at risk.

Piled on top of those fears is the growing concern that U.S. interest in an expensive, science fiction defence system is a step toward isolationism and an end to the international co-operation that has defined Western military policy since the end of the last war.

As their host and Washington's most sensitive neighbour, Prime Minister Jean Chrétien's response was studiously diplomatic. He sidestepped Putin's suggestion that Canada mediate the dispute, adding that it is up to the U.S. to make a case for the controversial system.

Chrétien's caution reflects deep and continuing concern over an issue that is straining the critical relationship with the U.S. and promises to become more problematic in January when Bush moves into the White House.

While Washington has not yet formally asked for Canada's participation, the project is clearly seen south of the border as a litmus test of continental solidarity.

Canada's conundrum is that it is in no position to oppose a suspect idea built on technology that doesn't work. Along with vital access to sensitive high technology, Canada's plans to increase military integration with the U.S. would be jeopardized by refusal to provide at least the diplomatic support Washington so clearly wants.

The other side of the story, one articulately expressed by former foreign affairs minister Lloyd Axworthy until a very public cabinet debate was silenced last spring, is equally compelling. Canada remains in the forefront of international efforts to abolish weapons of mass destruction and the thrust of its foreign policy is global, not regional.

Canada's concerns would be legitimate even if U.S. expectations for a missile defence umbrella were realistic. So far, they are not. The system continues to fail tests intended to demonstrate its ability to find and destroy in space missiles fired from rogue states. Critics contend the technology needed for the project does not exist and that the Pentagon has been faking reports in hopes of gaining approval and the accompanying massive funds.

More dubious still is the argument that a nuclear missile system deployed on Earth with targets in space will reduce the threat of terrorist attacks on the world's leading target. As frightening as the prospect of nuclear attack is, recent horrific events demonstrate that Americans at home and abroad are much more vulnerable to cottage industry terrorism.

Bombings of U.S. embassies in Africa and the successful attack on the U.S.S. Cole in the Gulf are typical. The technology was readily available and the acts executed by extremists who are oblivious to the deterrent that the most powerful nation on Earth will respond with bloody retribution. Missile defence critics argue the U.S. would be better advised to spend the money countering terrorists who are willing and able to inflict enormous damage with a subway bomb or chemical agent.

All of this poses an ugly dilemma for Canada, which a few months ago seemed likely to be rescued by the system's faults and President Bill Clinton's increasing doubts.

After test failures earlier this year, Clinton put approval on ice, effectively pushing the decision past both the U.S. and Canadian elections. Relieved, the Chrétien government began to hope international pressure and a victory by Vice-President Al Gore would kill the project without damage to U.S.-Canada relations.

That hope is now faint indeed. This week, Colin Powell, the Gulf War general who will be Bush's Secretary of State, said the new administration would listen to concerns and then approve the project. Flexing more muscle, he said critics would have to live with a decision he believes is in the interest of the international community, as well as that of the U.S.

To get the benefit of Canada's support and the diplomatic cover it would provide, Washington is willing to accept a modest commitment from this country. But with a Republican in the White House and Canada clinging to Washington's military and economic coattails, the U.S. isn't about to accept ``no´´ as an answer from the neighbour to the North.

James Travers is a national affairs columnist.

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