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Ottawa OKs Talks On Missile Defence

Posted on Friday, May 30 at 07:36 by polemarch1

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John McCallum, the Defence Minister, announced the government's intention in a nearly empty House of Commons. It follows weeks of debate in Cabinet and vigorous protests by the left wing of the Liberal caucus.

Mr. McCallum told the Commons the government has decided to enter talks on missile defence because it believes the system could protect Canadians' lives, and because it wants to ensure Canada's continuing influence in the defence of North America and caution the United States against the weaponization of space.

"I can think of no responsibility for a government more fundamental than the protection of the lives of its citizens. The Government of Canada would be better placed to protect the lives of Canadians if we are inside this tent rather outside this tent," Mr. McCallum said.

"Canada and the United States over the decades have disagreed many times on many matters," he added. "Never have we parted company with the United States ... in co-defending our continent. We are not about to do that today."

The federal government has been expected for weeks to approve the missile defence talks, but no final decision had been expected until Jean Chrétien returned from his European tour early next month. The surprise announcement led to speculation the Prime Minister decided to quickly approve negotiations to placate members of the Bush administration furious over his criticism this week of Washington's budget deficit.

Jack Layton, the New Democrat leader, called the decision "a slap in the face" to Canadians.

"The irony is that Star Wars is ultimately a trillion-dollar program. This expenditure is one of the very expenditures that would be driving up the American deficit that Chrétien was saying we needed to be worried about," Mr. Layton said.

"At the same time, Canadians haven't had a chance to discuss what it would mean for us to be involved."

A spokesman for Mr. McCallum said the government decision was not sped up to appease the United States -- rather, Mr. McCallum wanted to time the announcement to coincide with a debate on the issue the Canadian Alliance had scheduled.

Still, Liberal MPs were stunned. The announcement came as Lloyd Axworthy, a former Liberal foreign affairs minister, was appearing before a parliamentary committee outlining his opposition to the plan.

John Godfrey, a Toronto Liberal MP and leading caucus opponent of missile defence, was at the committee meeting when he received a note telling him to get to the House of Commons because Mr. McCallum was making a major announcement.

"I suppose it is all right for us to have a discussion, but it doesn't remove my fundamental objections to the system," Mr. Godfrey said later.

John Harvard, a Winnipeg Liberal MP who also opposes Canadian involvement, said: "I am more torn than I am disappointed. I'm torn because it is the kind of decision that just takes the country in the wrong direction.

"When they finish with missile defence, there will be something else. It never ends, this kind of military development."

The federal government had for years opposed U.S. plans to deploy a missile-defence system, but had a change of heart this spring after Washington succeeded in easing concerns in Russia and China, which had viewed the plan as a possible security threat.

Mr. McCallum and Bill Graham, the Foreign Affairs Minister, have argued Canada risks losing its prized role in the joint defence of North American airspace unless it participates in the US$8-billion defence system.

The U.S. plan calls for placing six interceptor missiles in Alaska and four in California by 2004, then 10 more in Alaska by 2005.

The plan also calls for putting up to 20 missiles, designed to intercept short- to medium-range missiles, aboard three Navy destroyers.

Paul Cellucci, the U.S. ambassador to Canada, has pressured Ottawa to decide because Washington is eager to finalize command-and-control details for the plan. He has said Washington would be willing to deploy missile defence under the joint Canada-U.S. North American Aerospace Defence command (NORAD) if Ottawa agreed to participate.

The Bush administration had not been expecting a Canadian decision before June 10, but sources told the National Post the Pentagon was increasingly impatient with Ottawa.

Mr. McCallum said the decision to open negotiations does not mean Canada is committed to participating in the plan.

"No final decision will be taken before returning to Cabinet after these discussions," he said.

"Let me be clear, while we believe that missile defence has the potential to benefit Canada, our participation is not unconditional. It is our responsibility to ensure that any arrangement protects our national interests. This will be at the forefront of our discussions."

Mr. McCallum and Mr. Graham have cautioned that a decision to stay out of missile defence would force the United States to launch its missile defence system through the U.S.-only Northern Command, shifting the power for defending continental airspace away from NORAD. That would damage Canadian sovereignty by leaving a bigger share of continental defence in U.S. hands.

Under the NORAD treaty, Canada supplies the organization's deputy commander, and senior Canadian officers share control of day-to-day operations in NORAD's headquarters at Cheyenne Mountain, Colo.

"The government believes that if these discussions with the United States lead to an agreement that NORAD represents the logical place in which to lodge ballistic missile defence," Mr. McCallum said. "If our discussions with the Americans are successful this will give new life, new relevance and a renewed future to NORAD, which has served Canada extremely well over all these decades.''

Opposition in the Liberal caucus had forced two delays in Cabinet's decision on missile defence, and sources had said final approval for the talks was unlikely before early June. As recently as Monday, Mr. Chrétien said he did not expect approval for negotiations to be granted before the Commons rose for its summer break in June.

While the current U.S. plan includes only land-based interceptors, the U.S. has not ruled out experimenting with space-based energy-directed weapons that could knock out ballistic missiles.

Mr. McCallum said "there is uncertainty" in the United States about whether missile defence will evolve into a space-based program, but said "Canadian opposition is very clear."

"If we are not inside the tent our ability to influence the U.S. decisions in these areas is likely to be precisely zero. If we are a part of ballistic missile defence then at least we will be inside the tent and be able to make our views known in an attempt to influence the outcome of this U.S. decision."

A senior Canadian official, travelling with the Prime Minister on an 11-day European trip, said yesterday Canadian firms stand to benefit from contracts to build the missile shield.

The official said he expects Cabinet will make a decision on whether to join missile defence by the end of the summer.

The official said Canada's participation hinged on whether Norad is in charge of the new system. Canada would also back out if the U.S. decided to use it as the first step toward the weaponization of space, he said.

The Americans have assured the government that for the time being the missile defence program will not be used to weaponize space, and the official said Canada will push hard for an international treaty to outlaw such a move.

Note: Source: National Post

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