Careful Obama soothes Canada on first foray abroad

US President Barack Obama rejected protectionist trade policies Thursday during a careful trip to Canada, on his debut foray abroad since his inauguration last month.

US President Barack Obama (L) meets with Canadian Opposition Party Leader Michael Ignatieff (R) at the Ottawa International Airport in Ottawa, Canada, February 19, 2009. (AFP Photo)

Obama, welcomed by crowds of cheering Canadians, downplayed a controversial "Buy American" clause in his huge economic stimulus plan, which raised fears in Canada and Europe of an anti-free trade backlash in the United States.

The US president also trod gently on Afghanistan, making clear he did not ask Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper to extend his country's commitment to the combat operation past its current 2011 end-date.

The Obama administration has made clear it wants its NATO allies to do more in the war, but Canada has paid a heavy price for its role on the frontlines.

Obama said the "Buy American" clause in his 787 billion dollar economic stimulus plan would not threaten free trade.

"I provided Prime Minister Harper an assurance that I want to grow trade and not contract it," Obama said, against a backdrop of Stars and Stripes and red and white Maple Leaf flags on Parliament Hill.

"I don't think that there was anything in the recovery package that is adverse to that goal."

The clause originally said infrastructure projects designed to kick-start the economy could only use US-made materials but was later watered down to comply with US treaty obligations.

Harper appeared satisfied, but warned barriers to free trade could slow the global economic recovery.

"We expect the United States to adhere to its international obligations," he said.

"I have every expectation, based on what the president's told me and what he said publicly many times in the past, that the United States will do just that."

But Harper added: "if we pursue stimulus packages, the goal of which is only to benefit ourselves ... we will deepen the world recession, not solve it."

Obama also faced scrutiny after pledging during the 2008 election that he would seek to renegotiate aspects of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) which includes the United States, Canada and Mexico.

He said he was still keen to improve labor and environmental standards in the pact but did not make a strong push to do so immediately.

"My hope is that ... there's a way of doing this that is not disruptive to the extraordinarily important trade relationships that exist between the United States and Canada," he said.

Canada has been wary of renegotiating the deal, but Harper said he hoped for progress on the issue.

"We can address some of these concerns, which I understand, without, you know, opening the whole NAFTA and unraveling what is a very complex agreement.

Obama meanwhile declined to answer a question about how long US troops would be in Afghanistan, after he authorized the deployment of an extra 17,000 soldiers, and declined to say if US troop numbers would rise further.

He said he was awaiting the results of a 60-day policy review into US Afghan war strategy to make further decisions.

Obama also soft pedaled on whether Canada should extend its combat mission in Afghanistan, an issue of intense political sensitivity for his host.

"I certainly did not press the prime minister on any additional commitments beyond ones that have already been made," Obama said.

The president did pay tribute to the 108 Canadian soldiers killed in Afghanistan since their military mission began in 2002 and praised the US ally for making the country its largest foreign aid recipient.

The two allies also agreed to cooperate on environmental protection and energy security.

"We are establishing a US-Canada clean energy dialogue which commits senior officials from both countries to collaborate on the development of clean energy, science, and technologies that will reduce greenhouse gases and combat climate change," Harper said.

Source: AFP

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