OTTAWA – President Barack Obama courted warmer relations with America's snowy northern neighbor Thursday, declining to ask war-weary Canada to do more in Afghanistan, promising he won't allow a protectionist creep into U.S. trade policy and talking reassuringly around thorny energy issues.
Obama-happy crowds cheered Obama's seven-hour visit, his first outside U.S. borders as president, and he returned the compliment with a quick stop at an indoor market where he delighted shopkeepers by picking up pastries and souvenirs for his daughters.
"I love this country and think that we could not have a better friend and ally," Obama said as he appeared side-by-side with Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper at gothic Parliament Hill. He later slipped slightly as he walked to his plane and joked that the weather reminded him of Chicago.
Harper in turn rolled out the red carpet for the new U.S. president. The Conservative leader had been close to President George W. Bush, personally and on policy. But he made clear with subtle jabs backward that he was casting his and his country's lot now with the vastly more popular Obama.
"As we all know, one of President Obama's big missions is to continue world leadership by the United States of America, but in a way that is more collaborative," Harper said, an apparent reference to Bush's go-it-alone diplomatic style.
Still, rhetorical niceties aside, there are some sharp differences between the U.S. and its largest trading partner and biggest supplier of oil. On several topics, where Obama came armed with reassurances, Harper offered mini-lectures, albeit gently delivered.
On the 7-year-old Afghanistan war, for instance, the Canadian leader said that NATO and U.S. forces fighting a resurgent Taliban insurgency are not "through our own efforts going to establish peace and security in Afghanistan." With Obama's administration undertaking a broad review of the U.S. strategy there, Harper suggested that any new policy "have the idea of an end date, of a transition to Afghan responsibility for security, and to greater Western partnership for economic development."
On Canada's massive oil-rich tar sands, Harper suggested that the kind of emissions regulations that environmentalists would like Obama to support would be unfair, making a comparison to the U.S. coal industry. "It's very hard to have a tough regulatory system here when we are competing with an unregulated economy south of the border," Harper said.
On trade, Obama stuck to his pledge to eventually seek changes in the 1994 North American Free Trade Agreement to increase enforcement of labor and environmental standards — but said he intended to do so in a way "that is not disruptive to the extraordinarily important trade relationships that exist between the United States and Canada."
Harper said he might be willing to negotiate, but not by "opening the whole NAFTA and unraveling what is a very complex agreement."
He sounded a similar warning on a "Buy American" clause that Congress added to the $787 billion economic stimulus package. The provision's passage fits into a larger fear among free-trading Canadians that America is cultivating a protectionist streak as its economy tanks and hemorrhages jobs.
"We expect the United States to adhere to its international obligations," Harper said. "I can't emphasize how important it is that we do that."
Another point of contention is the post-Sept. 11 security enhancements required by the U.S. along the two country's borders that have made crossings more arduous. Harper suggested no one needed to teach Canada lessons on that score: "Not only have we, since 9/11, made significant investments in security and security along our border, the view of this government is unequivocal: Threats to the United States are threats to Canada."
Obama repeatedly took a non-confrontational approach.
On trade, he declared that he had told Harper: "I want to grow trade and not contract it."
On Afghanistan, Obama said unprompted that he had not asked the prime minister for any more Canadian commitments. Just a handful of nations, including Canada, are doing the heavy lifting there by fighting in the country's dangerous southern and eastern provinces. Canada, which has lost more than 100 people in Afghanistan, is withdrawing its 2,500 combat forces out of the volatile south by 2011.
"We just wanted to make sure that we were saying thank you," Obama said.
The president announced earlier this week that he is sending 17,000 more U.S. troops to Afghanistan to augment the 33,000 already there. It was just over half the increase that U.S. commanders have requested, and Obama left the door open to additional increases once the strategy review is finished in late March.
On the oil sands issue, Obama probably scored points with his hosts by linking the environmental problems of the Canadian industry with those in the U.S. coal industry.
Industry officials estimate the northern Alberta sands could yield as much as 175 billion barrels of oil, making Canada second only to Saudi Arabia in crude oil reserves. But the extraction process produces a high amount of the greenhouse gases blamed for climate change. Environmental groups want Obama to resist Harper's efforts to exempt them from regulation.
Obama instead focused on the idea of developing carbon capture and storage to help turn the sands into a clean source of power, a largely unproven and not yet cost-effective technology that would bury harmful emissions underground.
The topic was the only one to produce an announcement, though a minor one. The leaders said they had decided to begin a new clean-energy dialogue to advance carbon-reduction technologies and the development of a modern electric grid.
Presidents send signals with their choices of their maiden international trips, and by coming here Obama meant to show that energy and Afghanistan are at the top of his list.
But with the U.S. economy in free fall, he chose not to make a long visit, not even staying for dinner.
The Canadian public didn't seem to care, with many spending hours on buses to come to the snowy capital in hopes of just a glimpse. The crowd of many hundreds that had started gathering at 4 a.m. in the square outside Parliament erupted in a deafening cheer when the U.S. leader waved for a moment from behind a partition before disappearing inside with Harper. Along his motorcade route, a woman held up a "Yes We Canada" sign, a playful reference to Obama's campaign motto.
There was one small Obama slip. During his joint appearance with Harper, Obama started out by remarking his great pleasure at being in what he clearly started to say was "Iowa." He quickly corrected himself to say "Ottawa."
The day afforded Obama his first experience with many of the pomp-filled ingredients of a presidential journey abroad.
With a light snow falling at the airport, a double line of Royal Canadian Mounted Police in their bright red coats stood at attention. Obama was greeted by the representative of Britain's Queen Elizabeth II, Michaelle Jean, who took him inside the terminal for a brief discussion. Obama later met in the same room at the end of his visit with Liberal opposition leader Michael Ignatieff. Throughout his visit, American flags fluttered alongside Canadian ones.