- The Washington Times - Friday, February 20, 2009

OTTAWA | President Obama and Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper on Thursday put off making major decisions on trade and a climate-change pact, instead promising cross-border cooperation and taking swipes at former President George W. Bush.

In his first foreign trip since becoming president one month ago, Mr. Obama greeted Canadian leaders and held a joint press conference with Mr. Harper, who had been more ideologically aligned with Mr. Bush than the upstart Democrat.

“I expect that four years from now the U.S.-Canadian relationship will be even stronger than it is today,” Mr. Obama said. “I love this country and think that we could not have a better friend and ally.”

Both downplayed their disagreements - with Mr. Harper saying only it was “premature” to take on Mr. Obama’s energy stance and the nations’ differing positions on the tar sands oil reserves until his administration sets its policies.

The tar sands are giant deposits of petroleum trapped in sand and clay in Alberta. Extracting that oil produces more greenhouse gases than conventional oil drilling, and environmentalists have called on Mr. Obama to limit its use in the U.S.

Mr. Obama, meanwhile, promised his tough campaign rhetoric on the North American Free Trade Agreement would not disrupt the relationship between the U.S. and Canada, the world’s largest trading partners, and that the “Buy American” provisions in the stimulus were consistent with American obligations.

Mr. Harper stressed that the U.S.-Canada portion of NAFTA has been in place for 21 years, leading to “a massive explosion of trade.”

“It was already the biggest trading relationship in the world; it’s so much bigger now. And that trade supports, you know, countless millions of jobs.

“Now, you know, I know some aspects of trade invariably cause political concerns, but nobody should think for a minute that trade between Canada and the United States is anything but a benefit between the two of us,” Mr. Harper said.

He added they share concerns about environmental and labor provisions but opening NAFTA unravels “what is a very complex agreement” and that he expects Mr. Obama will adhere to “international obligations.”

He said international stimulus plans must be “synchronized” for the global recession, and added that unlike the “Buy America” provision in the U.S. package, the Canadian stimulus removes duties on some imported goods.

Mr. Obama assured Mr. Harper that “I want to grow trade and not contract it.”

“Now is a time where we’ve got to be very careful about any signals of protectionism,” he said.

Mr. Harper, speaking in both French and English, announced they had agreed to a new “U.S.-Canada clean energy dialogue” that would include senior U.S. and Canadian officials who would “collaborate on the development of clean energy science and technologies.”

On the environment, “I don’t think the differences are near as stark as you would suggest,” Mr. Harper said, adding a dig at Mr. Bush.

“I’m quite optimistic that we now have a partner on the North American continent that will provide leadership to the world on the climate-change issue, and I think that’s an important development,” he said.

The president, who announced Tuesday he would be sending 17,000 more troops and support to Afghanistan, spoke publicly about the increase for the first time and said he would not prejudge the review his administration is doing of U.S. policy.

Mr. Obama told reporters that while the two leaders discussed Afghanistan, he “certainly did not press the prime minister on any additional commitments beyond the ones that have already been made.”

“All I did was to compliment Canada on not only the troops that are there, the 108 that have fallen as a consequence of engagement in Afghanistan, but also the fact that Canada’s largest foreign-aid recipient is Afghanistan,” he said.

Mr. Harper noted that Parliament recently passed a resolution extending the commitment to Afghanistan through 2011 and said his own view is that there should be an end-date of transitioning responsibility to the Afghan people.

He also lauded Mr. Obama for approaching world leadership “in a way that is more collaborative,” a remark directed at Mr. Bush.

Mr. Obama added the nations “have a tendency to take our relationship for granted,” but said the times demand a renewed and deepened cooperation.

Mr. Harper also said it was “very hard to have a tough regulatory system here” that competes with “an unregulated economy south of the border,” another Bush slight.

Mr. Obama - who enjoys an 80 percent approval rating among Canadians - was in campaign mode, enjoying an impromptu stop at the market and accidentally mentioning a battleground state back home.

“It’s a great pleasure to be here in Iowa - Ottawa,” Mr. Obama said, catching himself before the entire word was out of his mouth but not in time to avoid the remark being labeled as a gaffe.

Iowa was a key battleground state, but also the Jan. 4, 2008, caucus was his first win during the Democratic primary election. It swung his way in November, and a Downtown Des Moines rally on Halloween was one of his last campaign stops before winning the presidency.

Crowds of revelers gathered to witness Mr. Obama’s first foreign trip were somewhat reduced due to snow, but hundreds were standing outside the House of Commons hours before the president’s arrival.

As he arrived, one Obama fan waved a sign reading, “Yes We Canada.”

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