Friday, January 27, 2006

Arctic Controversy - A Rovian Maneouvre

The sudden surfacing of the Arctic controversy and the playground shoulder shoving between Harper and US ambassador David Wilkins is more than a tad curious. On the surface it appears to be little more than Harper expressing Canada’s long-standing claim to territorial waters in the High Arctic archipelago and Wilkins replying with the US position that those same areas constitute international waters.

Wilkins latest comments come after the Conservatives won a weak minority based, in small part, on a plank in their platform which will see an acoustic surveillance system planted in the Arctic, an army Arctic training centre built, an Arctic naval port established and three armed naval ice-breakers built and put on patrol within 10 years. Given the tenuous nature of Harper’s win, Wilkins could have kept his mouth shut since none of this is going to happen during Harper’s current term, which makes this even more curious.

Harper appears to be “standing his ground” and is actually gathering public support, however muted, while he demonstrates his heretofore untested skills in dealing with larger foreign policy issues. It attracts even more attention in that it is the US Bush administration with which Harper is being so blunt, something a majority of Canadians would not find objectionable at all. And, all of this transpires within three days of barely securing an election in which most people didn’t vote for Harper and a majority remain suspicious of his position vis-à-vis the United States. Given Harper’s propensity to all things Bush, when it comes to US foreign and defense policy, this might be a surprising break from the mirroring of US plans – if it weren’t so damned convenient and the timing wasn’t so damned obvious.

There is no border dispute here. The argument is over the “nature” of the waters in the Canadian Arctic Archipelago. Canada’s claim to the landmass is relatively secure and has been so since 1931. Even the US claim to international waters through the archipelago does not deny the existing right to a sovereign 12 mile territorial limit which was established in 1994 by the International Law of the Sea Convention (ILSC) and which also codified an exclusive 200 mile Economic Zone from the low water mark of each nation’s sea coast.

Canada has offered many times to have this question resolved in International Court only to have the US refuse. While it is not clear evidence, it is an indication that the US knows it would lose such a case if it went to adjudication. The US, in 1999, extended its law enforcement to 24 miles from its coast and has always claimed large bays and expanses of water beyond the headland limitations provided for by the ILSC. In short, the US has been getting away with making its own rules and has no argument when another sovereign nation imposes those same rules which may adversely affect its position. Canada’s claim to make the waters of the Arctic Archipelago “inside territorial” is easily supported.

Not that any of that matters. US and Canadian defence agreements extend deeply into each country’s naval policy. The USN keeps the movement of submarines, for example, a closely guarded secret from even their own surface navy, as does the Canadian navy. Both countries’ Submarine Operating Authorities (SUBOPAUTH) have a very healthy and close liaison to prevent the misidentification and accidental prosecution of submarines by either navy’s surface or submarine forces. And both navies are interoperable, often trading off taskings and integrating into each others’ task organizations. Neither navy is likely to want to change that policy any time soon, thus, even if Canada were detecting US submarines in the Arctic, knowledge of such a presence would be communicated back to the US SUBOPAUTH very discreetly and without a public announcement. And, as far as merchant ships passing through what would be Canadian waters, the ILSC allows merchant shipping to travel through the territorial waters of another nation under the “Right of Innocent Passage”. There is no requirement for merchant shipping to ask permission to make such a passage, nor did it exist when the US tanker Manhattan made its voyage in 1969. Add, that if the US considers the waters of the Arctic Achipelago "international", the Canadian Navy can roam them at will.

There is also the fact that the Conservative plan offers the US a strategic advantage. The US has always had an elevated interest in seeing Canada establish permanent military and naval bases in the High Arctic. Essentially, it means Canada will take on the role of active northern surveillance under existing agreements for the joint protection of North America and the US has been pushing that for decades.

That Canada is announcing the establishment of military and naval bases on its own, already secured, sovereign territory, is of no concern to the US. Indeed, the increase in military commitment has long been a demand of the US government and of the Bush administration specifically.

So what’s going on?

One thing is certain. David Wilkins didn’t start making statements on his own. He doesn’t know the difference between a polar ice-pack and a peanut farm. He was speaking the words of the administration and in that, the timing is important.

Wilkins initially jumped in with comments during the election campaign which fed into the Conservative platform taking issue with Paul Martin’s criticism of US trade policy and the fact that USS Charlotte had transited Canadian waters to reach the North Pole. Wilkins snapped that Canadian politicians should stop bashing the US as a means to get elected, yet totally ignored the Conservative platform which has now supposedly raised an issue.

Harper, after being elected, spends at least 15 minutes (or more) in a phone call with Bush. Harper would have made at least two things very clear: His rise to office was, at best, very tenuous; and, he needed to be able to appear to be strong when dealing with the US since Canadians would not tolerate a prime minister who pandered to the Bush administration. The ability to retain and hold power depends on how Harper appears to be dealing with the US.

The Bush administration is, if nothing else, competent in the art of deception and the manufacturing of illusion. They have taken the process of governing and twisted it into a perpetual election campaign, led by Karl Rove who, given his role, has extraordinary power in the White House. And, Harper, the man they want in office, needs the illusion of strength and an issue around which even his opponents can rally or at least something with which his supporters can suggest vocal opposition is being anti-Canadian.

Then Wilkins makes his comment:
There's no reason to create a problem that doesn't exist
That’s right, and there was no reason for Wilkins to comment unless there was a deliberate attempt to engage Harper with full knowledge of Harper’s planned response.

But, nobody asked. So, Harper had to put it out there for everyone to digest.

The following day, in an unprompted statement, Harper surprised reporters with:
The United States defends its sovereignty; the Canadian government will defend our sovereignty. It is the Canadian people we get our mandate from, not the ambassador of the United States.
Wilkins takes one for the team and Harper looks strong. Illusion complete and, in case you hadn’t noticed, it’s having the desired effect.

This has been a classic Rovian maneuver. I smell more than a rat in all this; I smell a very rotten red herring.

We’re being had.

Update: Links fixed

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