I lived here fifty years ago (!) when Eisenhower was President, the Senators were in the last place in the American League and the kids in my third grade class made fun of me (among other reasons) because I wouldn’t sing the national anthem or put my hand over my heart when everyone else was pledging allegiance to the flag.
My dad used to say that the first and greatest challenge of a Canadian diplomat in Washington was to get their attention. That is still so true. This is the centre of much power in the world, and the United States is understandably focussed on its own problems and concerns. With a two trillion dollar deficit, an economy still suffering, two wars, an energy crisis, a health care crisis, and all problems big and small screaming across the airwaves of CNN and FoxNews, it is hardly a surprise that the quiet neighbour living upstairs in the attic isn’t “top of mind”.
Some quick impressions from a four day trip with the Foreign Affairs and Afghanistan committees. The first is that my father is still right. Getting their attention is the toughest. A joint lunch with the House Foreign Affairs Committee is sparsely attended, congressmen wandering in and out, aides whispering in their ear, pointing at watches, committees, constituents, votes, all making attention deficit disorder a serious political phenomenon. The cafeteria in the Rayburn Building is like a bazaar, lobbyists, staffers, the public all milling around waiting for the next hearing, the next committee.
The Obama agenda is full, foreign and domestic, crises never waiting for the “right moment”. One feature of the American system is that thousands of public service positions are filled by partisan appointment – so there are still thousands of vacancies. I’ve never met with so many “actings” in all my life.
The other feature of the system is the role of think tanks and consultants – in and out of power. The public policy debate is deeper as a result, more competing information and viewpoints.
Canada actually got some attention this week with Janet Napolitano’s incredibly ill informed comments about Canada being the source of terrorist attacks on the US, and the Canadian border needing to look a lot more like the Mexican border. Fighting these myths is tough, but has to be done.
Our efforts in Afghanistan are deeply appreciated, and are another reason why in the administration we’re getting some time and attention. There is deep concern about Afghanistan and Pakistan, and it is getting deeper. At least the Obama administration really gets some things – this is not exclusively a military conflict, it is a regional issue, and it will require some major, additional military and political resources. Beyond that, we shall see. No gloom, but certainly a deep preoccupation.
Bob Rae is a former member of Parliament and former premier of Ontario.