Canada welcomes Obama; he softens NAFTA rhetoric

The Baltimore Sun

OTTAWA -President Barack Obama offered the nation's largest trading partner assurances yesterday of his support for robust cross-border commerce in a seven-hour visit to Canada that was his first foreign trip as president.

In a news conference with Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper, Obama said he wanted to "grow trade and not contract it."

His remarks set a considerably more enthusiastic tone than during the presidential campaign, in which he had called for renegotiating the North American Free Trade Agreement that governs commerce with Canada and Mexico.

During a Democratic candidates' debate on the eve of the presidential primary in Ohio, Obama had argued for threatening to withdraw from NAFTA as a "hammer" to force concessions on labor and environmental standards.

But in Canada yesterday, Obama treaded carefully on the issue of trade.

"Now is a time where we've got to be very careful about any signals of protectionism," Obama said, "because as the economy of the world contracts, I think there's going to be a strong impulse, on the part of constituencies in all countries, to see if they can engage in beggar-thy-neighbor policies."

Obama also made his first public comments on the increase in U.S. troops he ordered for Afghanistan this week, leaving open the possibility that he would add more troops at the end of a continuing strategic review.

The president said he did not want to "prejudge" the result of the review, which he said would be completed in two months. He had ordered an increase of 17,000 troops, short of a request for 30,000 made by the U.S. commander in Afghanistan.

"I ordered the additional troops there because I felt it was necessary to stabilize the situation," he said.

Canada has a contingent of 2,800 troops in Afghanistan, which is scheduled to depart by 2011 under a deadline set by the Canadian Parliament.

Obama said he "certainly did not press the prime minister" for a commitment to extend the deadline.

"All I did was to compliment Canada on ... the troops that are there," the president said, noting that 108 Canadian soldiers have died in Afghanistan.

In office for a month, Obama appeared to have completed his first official foreign visit smoothly, though he did lose his footing for a moment on icy tarmac as he was walking back to Air Force One for departure.

Obama is an enormously popular figure in Canada, and his visit generated a wave of enthusiasm.

A crowd of several thousand greeted the president from the lawn of Canada's Parliament Building, with many waiting hours in a light snowfall for the chance to see his arrival. Obama and Harper offered the crowd a quick wave before walking inside for their meetings.

Acknowledging his support in Canada, Obama closed his news conference with Harper by saying: "I want to also, by the way, thank some of the Canadians who came over the border to campaign for me during the election."

"It was much appreciated," he said, drawing a round of laughter.

The meetings between the two officials were largely a chance for them to get to know each other. The only formal agreement announced covered cooperation on the development of environmental technology.

Obama also met with opposition party leader Michael Ignatieff before departing for Washington.

Four of the prior seven presidents chose Canada for their first visits outside the country, and many Canadians felt snubbed when President George W. Bush picked Mexico for his first foreign visit.

Obama's choice of Canada for his first trip beyond U.S. borders was celebrated as symbolically important in the country.

Though Canada's conservative government is ideologically closer to the Bush administration, and Harper maintained a close relationship with the former president, the prime minister praised Obama as a president who "epitomizes" the two countries' "shared value" of "equal opportunity."

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