David Frum November 30th, 2004 at 12:00 am
WASHINGTON–George Bush’s event planners have learned something from history. When Ronald Reagan spoke to Parliament in 1987, he was interrupted by heckling from the NDP benches led by Svend Robinson. That was almost two decades ago, but the lesson has been absorbed: A presidential visit offers irresistible temptation to the small but noisy narcissist-leftist faction on the upper back benches. Robinson has had to make an abrupt exit from politics recently, but there are quite a number of Ottawa pols eager to take his place in somebody else’s spotlight.
The Bush planners must have figured: Why give these jerks a chance? Instead, the President will do a joint press conference with Prime Minister Paul Martin after a working lunch; deliver a toast at a gala dinner at the Museum of Civilization; and then give the major speech of his visit in Halifax.
I strongly suspect Bush’s Halifax address will make a strong impression on Canadians. The President’s pollsters consistently report that audiences like George Bush better the longer he speaks: He does better in a 60-second spot than in an 8-second clip, better still in a 10-minute appearance than in a 60-second spot, best of all when he is able to claim 20 or 40 minutes of airtime for a formal address.
His words in Halifax will be widely broadcast and closely heard–and I think they will surprise many Canadians.
The President is not coming to Canada to argue with Canadians about the differences that have divided the two governments in recent years. His private meetings with Prime Minister Martin and others will deal with those disagreements–and the need to work past them. He will go to Halifax for a very different purpose: to thank the kind people of Atlantic Canada who took stranded American passengers into their homes in the days after 9/11–and to showcase the gallant contributions of the Canadian Forces to the military campaigns in Afghanistan and the Persian Gulf. Sixteen of Canada’s 18 warships have done duty in the Gulf since the fall of 2001. HMCS Toronto returned just this past July from a six-month mission with the USS George, Washington’s battle group. Although Canada formally declined to play a part in the battles on Iraqi soil, the Canadian military has strained its capabilities to assist the United States in the larger global campaign against Middle Eastern terror. With the surprising eloquence he musters at important moments, the President will acknowledge this assistance and pay tribute to the sacrifices of the Canadian sailors, soldiers and aviators who delivered it.
This is right and proper in itself. It is also the first step in a larger campaign to reach out to America’s allies worldwide. The methods Bush is testing on this visit will, if successful, soon go global.
Bush is working on the assumption that many allied governments feel that they have allowed their disagreements with the United States to go too far. In 2002 and 2003, for example, Jean Chretien–like Germany’s Gerhard Schroeder and some other leaders as well–seemed to have decided he could earn some easy political points on the left-hand side of the political spectrum by running against George Bush. That decision may have been aided by a calculation that Bush was an accidental president likely to lose in 2004. Now that the President has been returned to office with great political power, those 2002-03 calculations are looking less shrewd. A minority Canadian prime minister does not want to spend the next four years quarrelling with a popular president backed by a congressional majority. Ditto for a German chancellor coping with an ailing economy. Ditto for European governments terrified by internal Islamist violence like the murder of Theo van Gogh, by Iran’s nuclear ambitions and by the aggressive Russian strategy on display in Ukraine.
Bush seems to have decided that allied anger over the decision to go to war in Iraq has subsided. Whether the allies liked the initial decision or not, they seem to agree that now that the decision has been made, Iraq cannot be allowed to fail. This may explain why–after a year of trying–the Bush administration last week succeeded in persuading the European allies and Russia to write off 80 percent of Iraq’s debt.
He is gambling too that he can reconnect with the broad sensible political middle of public opinion in these countries. He attempted to do so with some very powerful speeches in Britain on his state visit in November, 2003. Back then, anti-Bush feeling had risen so high–and the anti-Bush forces had mobilized so effectively–that he simply could not get a fair hearing. But if his message in Halifax resonates with the Canadian public, that may signal that the international audience is willing to listen again.
Foreign critics of U.S. policy often said in the first Bush administration that they had no problem with the United States; it was George Bush they could not stand. But if this last U.S. election means anything, it means that George Bush represents something strong and important in American life–something stronger and more important than any single human being, and something that will remain strong and important long after Bush retires to his Crawford ranch. That something demands attention and respect. Canadians, who intuitively understand America so well, are better able to engage this new American reality. The job begins in Ottawa today. It will continue on both sides of the Atlantic for many years. We all have a stake in seeing it done right.