TORONTO, Feb. 24 -- Canada announced Thursday that it has decided not to participate in a U.S. missile defense system, dealing a symbolic setback to the experimental project and a blunt rebuff to President Bush, who had personally lobbied Canada to join.
The decision by Prime Minister Paul Martin, who had earlier signaled he favored signing on to the system, was an acknowledgment of the deep dislike Canadians feel both for President Bush and his administration's project to shoot down missiles headed toward the United States.
Prime Minister Paul Martin speaks in Parliament, where legislators opposed his decision to not to work with the United States on missile defense.
(Jim Young -- Reuters)
"We will continue to work in partnership with our southern neighbors on the common defense of North America," Martin said. "However, ballistic missile defense is not where we will concentrate our efforts."
His decision has more political than practical impact, since Canada agreed last August to allow its operators at the North American Aerospace Command center in Colorado to share information on incoming missiles, a key concession that had been sought by the United States.
Canada's new ambassador to Washington, Frank McKenna, embarrassed the government Tuesday by acknowledging that the earlier decision meant "we're part of it now."
During a raucous parliamentary session in Ottawa on Thursday, legislators complained that the government was "halfway in and halfway out" of the U.S. program. "What is it that the prime minister has said no to?" demanded opposition leader Stephen Harper. "The government has managed to announce it is in missile defense and not in missile defense in the very same week."
Martin's announcement means Canada will not take part in building the system, paying for it or operating it, even though the plan could call for missiles to be shot down over Canada. Although the United States can continue working on the system alone, Canada's rejection is seen as fuel for U.S. opponents of the project, who voice similar concerns about its cost, practicality and scope.
Martin's decision risks putting a new chill in relations with the Bush administration. Martin had worked hard to improve the relationship after a frosty period that followed Canada's refusal to join the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003. As a sign of bilateral progress, Martin hosted Bush on a visit to Ottawa late last year.
But Bush surprised his hosts at the time by pressing hard for Canada's participation in missile defense. Martin was reportedly unable to convince Bush of the political difficulties he would face by joining the U.S. plan.
Canada's public has long opposed any move toward the weaponization of space, and critics have contended that the antimissile program would lead to putting weapons aboard satellites to shoot down other missiles. Opponents also contend that the system is unproven, costly, technologically flawed and based on outdated assumptions about attacks by air.
The outgoing U.S. ambassador to Canada, Paul Cellucci, argued strongly for Canada's joining. Others said Canada should participate in the planning so it wasn't left out of a program the United States would likely pursue anyway. The United States has already begun installing in Alaska the first of 40 planned interceptor missiles.
"The federal government may have more difficulties dealing with the U.S. government now," predicted Gordon O'Connor, a member of Parliament and defense expert from the opposition Conservative Party. "How many times can we turn the U.S. down?"
In Canada, public opinion polls also have shown overwhelming dislike of President Bush and opposition to his foreign policies, which are seen by many Canadians as overly aggressive. Those polls have left the Parliament deeply divided on the missile defense system, and Martin apparently concluded he could not risk a floor fight on the issue.
"When Mr. Martin put his finger in the air over missile defense, he felt a chill," complained an editorial in Toronto's Globe and Mail newspaper. "This is not a strong prime minister. Canada will pay the price."
In announcing his decision, Martin stressed the continuing close relations between the U.S. and Canadian militaries. He pointed out that he had proposed a $10.2 billion, five-year plan to expand and re-equip the military, which would help Canada guard North America's borders and finance peacekeeping missions in Afghanistan and Haiti.
"Canada and the United States remain one another's staunchest allies," he said.