Prime Minister Paul Martin has done the right thing. By refusing to sign on politically to George W. Bush's missile defence scheme, he has opened himself up to charges of flip-floppery. But this time, the flip-flop has a point.
The point is not just that most Canadians don't want to join missile defence (although for a minority government, that should be reason enough). Nor is it the fact that, so far, the Americans haven't been able to make it work.
The real point of refusing to join missile defence is to do exactly that which so irritates Bush: It is to distance Canada politically from the current U.S. administration.
This, I suspect, is why a slim majority of Canadians (54 per cent in the Toronto Star's most recent EKOS poll) oppose the U.S. plan.
It's not so much that they resist the idea of using missiles to shoot down missiles. Technically, the scheme is simply a more expensive, if less accurate, form of high-altitude anti-aircraft fire.
Rather, it is that they don't trust Bush. The polls show that, too. A solid chunk of Canadians think the current U.S. president is the gravest threat to world peace.
For a long time, Martin didn't understand this. He, like other solid-citizen members of the Liberal right wing, saw missile defence as just one of those crazy things the Americans like to do.
To Martin and other so-called hard-headed realists, the calculus was simple: If Bush had ants in his pants about rogue missiles devastating the U.S. heartland, then it was simplest to humour him.
Canada would accommodate the U.S. president's eccentricities. In return, Americans would buy Canadian two-by-four lumber.
As long as the U.S. wasn't asking Ottawa for money (which it wasn't), the scheme would be costless. Indeed, for the hard heads, the fact that missile defence didn't work was almost a plus.
At least there would be little danger of Bush inadvertently starting a world war.
In normal times, this calculus might have made sense.
But a good many Canadians understand that these are not normal times. The trauma of 9/11 has so unhinged the American public that far too many have forgotten who they are and what they once stood for.
What they once stood for was a chippy kind of individualism subsumed into a robust, if occasionally maddeningly corrupt, democracy.
They didn't always pay attention, but when they did their hearts were, more often than not, in the right place.
The Americans of those not-too-distant days would never have stood long for a regime that curtailed civil liberties at home, squandered soldiers' lives in pointless adventures abroad and, as a matter of public policy, engaged in the barbaric torture of prisoners.
They never would have re-elected someone like George W. Bush.
The Americans of these days are different. They support torture, the erosion of their own rights, pointless wars and Bush.
Americans ask: Wouldn't you have done the same if Toronto had been attacked? And perhaps we would have. That, however, would not have made it right.
Nor have America's actions been right. The U.S. is on the wrong, wrong track. This is difficult for Canadians. We cannot disengage geographically. We do not wish to disengage economically.
Most Canadians have American friends. A considerable number have American relatives. In spite of all the talk in fashionable circles about Canada's deplorable anti-Americanism, I suspect few here wish the U.S. ill.
But sometimes, when your friends go nuts, you have to quietly but politely draw back. Advise them to seek professional help; offer any practical assistance you can.
But don't encourage their frenzy. It will not help. It will only make them worse.
-Thomas Walkom (link in title)