published Thursday, February 19th, 2009

Short trip, long agenda: Obama darts up to Canada

By BEN FELLER

WASHINGTON — Barack Obama's first foreign trip as president — a down-to-business visit with an essential economic ally, Canada — is light on time but loaded with touchy matters.

The world will watch today as Obama gets his first chance since taking office to command an audience abroad, let alone get an impression of Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper. The two have not met previously.

Ottawa is awash in buzz about hosting the new president; supporters are rolling in by the busload in hopes of a glimpse. Two-thirds of Canadians wanted Obama elected, a Gallup Poll found in October. Even more said the choice of the U.S. president affected their own nation.

Canada and the United States have the largest trading relationship between any two countries in the world. And for all the talk of ending a dangerous reliance on foreign oil, the U.S. depends more on Canada for imported oil than it does any other country.

So far, as Obama grapples with a crashing economy, he has kept his focus at home. As if to underscore that urgent domestic tone, he isn't staying the night or even sticking around for dinner in Canada. He will be there for about seven hours.

Yet that pace belies an agenda packed with sensitive topics.

Obama comes bearing a pro-trade message to assuage Canadian concerns over protectionism; a promise of a new strategy in Afghanistan as Canada moves to yank out all its troops there; and talk of clean-energy cooperation as controversy hangs over Canada's oil-rich sands.

More broadly, Obama's presence signals a fresh start.

"It's the first step in continuing to rebuild the image of the United States abroad by turning to our closest neighbor," said John K. Glenn, director of foreign policy at the German Marshall Fund of the United States, a nonpartisan think tank.

Harper, who heads a Conservative government, had a good relationship with Obama's predecessor, George W. Bush, calling him a president who "never promised me anything he couldn't deliver." And Canada's ties with the U.S. run deep. Still, Bush became deeply unpopular in Canada, which had a spillover effect.

"Canadians are gaga over Obama," said David Biette, director of the Canada Institute at the Woodrow Wilson Center for International Scholars. "It gives Harper a lot more leeway with the United States."

A spokesman for Harper, Kory Teneycke, previewed the visit by underlining similarities between his boss and Obama. He said both have similar ages and young families and are "policy-focused intellectuals."

Personalities aside, matters of war and economic strife await Obama and Harper.

Canada is planning to pull its 2,500 combat troops out of Afghanistan's volatile south by 2011, following the loss of more than 100 troops killed in the country since 2001. Obama is headed the other direction, dispatching 17,000 more U.S. troops to the war zone.

Both the U.S. and Canada have urged other NATO countries to contribute more to stabilize Afghanistan, where insurgents have gained new strength and the top U.S commander is warning of a "tough year." But Canada's people say they have shouldered their burden enough.

Obama plans to tell Harper that the U.S. is overhauling its strategy in Afghanistan, with more effort on diplomacy. Pressed during a Canadian Broadcast Corp. interview this week on whether he will ask Canada to stay in a combat role, Obama said, "I don't have a specific 'ask' in my pocket that I intend to bring out in our meetings."

On the economy, Obama comes with a reassuring pro-trade message.

There is no strident talk from the White House about renegotiating the North American Free Trade Agreement — or even pulling out as a tool of leverage. Obama raised that idea as a candidate for president with an eye toward strengthening labor and environmental standards.

The broader goal is still part of Obama's agenda. But reopening a lucrative trade pact among Canada, Mexico and the U.S. is not a mess Obama wants to get into right now.

On the energy front, environmental groups want Obama to get tough with Canada about its massive oil sands operation. Alberta's tar sands present a deep supply of potential oil, but the extraction process produces a high amount of the greenhouse gases blamed for climate change.

Other issues likely to crop up during Obama's meetings are the "Buy American" clause in the economic stimulus bill he signed into law Tuesday and his administration's move to impose stricter "country of origin" labeling on fresh meats and other foods sold in U.S. stores.

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