Missile defense shield IS an idiotic idea

Tuesday, September 7, 2004


Written by Scott Piatkowski

Mississauga Liberal MP Carolyn Parrish has managed, with one intemperate remark last week, to generate more Canadian media coverage of the American missile defense initiative than the issue had been given in the entire past year. With her reference to “the coalition of the idiots”, Parrish has unleashed a predictable torrent of criticism, reminiscent of what happened last year when she referred to American political leaders as “bastards”.

Missing from nearly all of the coverage has been any serious analysis of the program, or any real debate about the merits of Canadian complicity in it. Why talk about actual issues when it’s more fun to focus on the propriety of a single backbench MP’s questionable choice of words?

Why talk about how ridiculous (idiotic) it is for any government to spend hundreds of billions of dollars on unproven missile defense technology when forty million of its citizens don’t have access to basic health care?

Why talk about the fact that the only test of the system that ever worked was one that was deliberately rigged so that it couldn’t fail?

Why talk about how destabilizing such a system would be to the global balance of power and about how it would inevitably lead to a newly invigorated arms race?

Why talk about how useless such a system (even if it does work) would be against the real threats to North American security, such as foreign hijackers armed with boxcutters and homegrown terrorists armed with fertilizer and blasting caps?

No, we must not talk about any of those little details, because it’s far more important to talk about whether Carolyn Parrish should be disciplined for using the word “idiots”.

Part of the reason for this bizarre conspiracy of silence stems from the fact that even its staunchest Canadian backers don’t want to talk about the issue (one Martin adviser called it “a surefire vote loser”). Its American proponents know this, and have tacitly agreed to limit their pressure tactics to the back rooms – particularly in the period before the federal election. “Missile defense is going forward, one way or the other. Canada's role is no doubt tied up in your electoral politics,” one anonymous U.S. official told the Globe and Mail in the spring. The Americans even agreed to a Canadian request to avoid controversy by keeping missile defense off the official agenda when Martin visited the White House prior to the election (and this was sold to reporters as a great diplomatic victory for Canada).

Globe columnist John Ibbitson has admitted that, even though he favours the program, he knows that it wouldn’t sell if a proper public debate were held on the subject. “This is a subject on which neither leader may be able to breathe a public word. But that's no reason not to get started right away,” on preparations for Canadian participation, Ibbitson wrote on the eve of Martin’s visit.

Despite the lack of public discussion, the Martin government has taken Ibbitson’s advice and put all the pieces in place to become a full participant in the scheme. In January, then-Defense Minister David Pratt sent a formal letter to Donald Rumsfeld telling him that Canada wanted to discuss “possible Canadian participation” in the American plans. “In light of the growing threat involving the proliferation of ballistic missiles and weapons of mass destruction, we should explore extending this partnership to include co-operation in missile defense, as an appropriate response to these new threats and as a useful complement to our non-proliferation efforts,” he wrote.

In August, Canada quietly agreed to amend the NORAD agreement to help move the missile defense plans along. Incredibly, Defense Minister Bill Graham still insisted that “We're a long way from making any such decision [to participate]. We're keeping all options open.”

The only caveat that Martin raised, when pressed on the issue during the election campaign, was that Canada and would not participate in any program that would lead to weapons in space. This betrays a fundamental misunderstanding (or, more likely, a serious case of duplicity) regarding what missile defense would involve. Russia’s ambassador to Canada, Georgiy Mamedov (who formerly served as his country’s main arms-control negotiator) has said that Pentagon officials explicitly told him that they planned to deploy weapons in space. As NDP Leader Jack Layton notes, “It's as though we've got blinders on here, thinking that we can be involved in missile defense without putting weapons in space.”

If a full public debate and parliamentary vote were to be held in Canada, Martin could count on the support of the Conservative caucus to offset the opposition of the NDP, the Bloc and a handful of his own MPs (including, but not limited to, Parrish) who are opposed to Canadian participation in missile defense. Having spent the entire election campaign demonizing the Conservatives for their pro-American values, however, Martin hardly wants to be seen to rely on their co-operation to advance a major shift in Canadian foreign policy. He’d rather just not talk about it at all.

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