Obama's first overseas visit and Pakistan 'the capitulator'

As Ottawa indulges in a little Obama-mania, the economy, Afghanistan, and the rise of sharia law in Pakistan hang heavy over the new Commander-in-Chief

Canada’s capital, Ottawa, is in fully fledged Obama-mania mode as it prepares for the US President’s first ever overseas visit (Friday NZ time) in his new leading role. What else do you expect when the world’s rock-star politician comes to town?

It’s been billed as a working visit – all six hours of it. And what goes on behind closed doors will – or should – inevitably have very little in common with the more frivolous aspects that are building up around the visit. In case you need to know. Ottawa’s food joints are turning on nothing less than an Obama Burger complete with it’s slice of Hawaiian pineapple (no comment needed), and there will be the inauguration of a ‘No. 44’ coffee which supposedly is a blend of Hawaiian, Sumatran and Kenyan beans. Cute huh?

Of course the security barriers are up, the roads will be blocked off the night before The One arrives in the aptly named “Beast” of a limo, and Canadian news reports people taking buses from all over the place [ed's note: you'll love that link] to get to Ottawa in the hope of a confirmed sighting. The only chance for that will be the brief moment when he alights the Beast to walk into the Parliament buildings. Advice to all those planning to gather on the vast front lawn: Take your binoculars and hope they can visually pierce the massive flexi-bulletproofed glass that will shield the President. Guess the US Secret Service doesn’t know how delightfully polite things north of the 49th parallel can be.

Inside parliament, it is hoped that Obama and Canada’s Prime Minister Stephen Harper will address four key issues – and there are no chocolate fish for getting the answers right.

Number one will be the economy. Canada is rather pleased with itself as the only G7 country that has not had to bail out any of its banks. When I moved here people told me things would be so boring because everyone is busy pressing their jeans. Well, boring is good when it comes to banks it seems. For Obama and Harper, however, there is no boring in what’s going on and whatever happens in the US automatically flicks over the border to affect its closest trading partner.

Which brings us to issue number two – the ‘Buy America’ campaign. Sure, Obama has tempered it to be a policy that also acknowledges its previous signed trade deals. In a pre-visit interview that CBC’s Peter Mansbridge has done with Obama, the President has told him that Canadians shouldn’t be too concerned about the policy. Too concerned however is not the same as not concerned, and that will not be lost on Canadian manufacturers who are, like the rest of the world, bleeding jobs.

There’s also Canada’s vast oil tar sands which are a huge source of energy, but just happen to be incredibly dirty, expensive energy in terms of the processing to extract the oil. The US has already made noises about how such dirty energy is hardly compatible with the Obama energy of the future. The environment and the gulf between the respective policies of Kyoto-free-Harper and windmill-Obama could make for an uneasy relationship. Yet given the more pressing priorities it is likely to be a little on the back burner, so to speak.

And the other biggie – although certainly not the fourth in terms of importance – is what’s next for Afghanistan.

As Pundit has noted before, Canada’s death toll in Afghanistan reflects its presence in the extremely dangerous Kandahar province, and the country has legislated to pull troops out midway through 2011. Obama meanwhile is looking for a bigger commitment from NATO, and America has upped its own troop and support numbers this week by 17,000. Sort of a down payment on the 30,000 extra troops General Petraeus has asked for. Whether Obama arrives in Ottawa armed with a plea to change that legislated date remains to be seen. Given the feeling of Canadians towards the mounting tolls in lives and money, it’ll be an uphill push on the part of the new Commander-in-Chief..

Even more worrying must surely be what the hell is happening in Pakistan’s Swat region, where the Pakistan Government has caved in to the demands from the Taliban for a legal system compatible with the oppressive Sharia law. Has the world missed something here?

Pakistan’s capital Lahore is about one hour from the Swat region, yet it is going to acquiesce to a system of ‘law’ that allows for the destruction of schools for girls – even the burning by acid of girls who do go to school – and penalties for a host of other so-called “un-Islamic” activities like watching television or dancing. Each is potentially punishable by death.

This Talibanization of a large northern district of Pakistan is the price for peace?

There can be no real conversation between Obama and Harper, or Obama and any other leader, that does not tie Pakistan to the Afghanistan war at every point. The capitulator is after all a supposed ally of the US, and a well funded one at that.

Any sensitivity surrounding its relationship with Pakistan now taints America and calls in to question the mission of trying to oust the Taliban in Afghanistan, when they have just been granted a ‘get-out-of-jail-free’ card to operate from within the safe havens of Pakistani sovereign territory. Explain why Canada (or any other NATO nation, or New Zealand for that matter) would want to send more young lives to fight that fight.

Howzat for a downer as Ottawa lays out the red carpet, fries the pineapple and grinds the ‘44’ beans in honour of President Obama? Just goes to show how interconnected this world is, as if the disastrous game of global economic dominoes hasn’t already drummed that into us all, loud and clear.