Postcards from a failing empire

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What would you think if another country involved in a free-trade agreement with us announced that it wasn’t going to live up to the treaty’s terms?

Let’s say the other nation announced they were happy for us to pay the normal price for everything they were selling — as we had formally agreed in a treaty. But when it came time for us to sell something to them, they decided our price was too low. So they — in complete violation of the treaty — started charging us a tariff again. Don’t you think we would be pretty mad?

Why, George W. Bush has invaded small countries for less! But that is exactly what has been happening for years. Except in this case, we are the bad guys, and we’ve been behaving like thugs toward Canada.

We have been violating terms of the North American Free Trade Agreement, or NAFTA, for years, over “softwood lumber,” which is what we use to make houses, and is one of our biggest imports from Canada. We’ve slapped an enormous 22 percent surcharge, or tariff, on lumber imports.

Since President Bush took office, we have collected more than $4 billion in these illegal tariffs. That’s because the U.S. lumber industry resents that Canada can supply better trees for cheaper than it can. And the lumber barons donate to U.S. political campaigns. Various panels of NAFTA referees have looked at the dispute and concluded that the United States is behaving badly.

This has Canada hopping mad. Nevertheless, we haven’t budged an inch, and most Americans have never heard a word about this dispute, since our media is wonderfully consistent in totally ignoring Canada — even when there isn’t a missing busty blond teenager somewhere.

Last week I talked with Jim Peterson, Canada’s minister for international trade. “The people of Canada and the United States alike have unjustly suffered for years,” due to the political influence of the U.S. lumber industry, he said. “Panel after panel has found that Canadian softwood lumber is not subsidized. The United States will only have complied with NAFTA when it stops collecting the duties,” and refunds the $4 billion.

How does this hurt our country?

According to the Canadian government, every month the duty is applied, thousands of Americans can’t afford homes. The duty also adds more than $1,000 to the price of an average American home, Canada claims.

Last week, the United States did move to slightly cut the duty. But it still refuses to refund the illegally collected billions, and when Canada voted to compensate its lumber industry for less than a third of that money, U.S. Special Trade Representative Rob Portman howled “unfair playing field!”

This week, Canada’s Parliament is expected to vote that they have no confidence in the government, in part because the two main opposition parties are angry that the ruling Liberals haven’t made more progress on this trade dispute with the United States. That will likely mean a new national election in a few weeks.

Odds are, however, that the Liberals will win again. Prime Minister Paul Martin isn’t all that popular, but polls show that people do admire his efforts to stand up to the United States on trade — and are especially happy that he has resisted being dragged into our quagmire of a war in Iraq.

Ironically, during the last election, Stephen Harper, leader of the Conservatives, the main opposition party in Canada, argued that if he were elected, he would seek closer ties with the United States. Don’t expect to see him using that slogan this time around.

This is all tragic for reasons that have nothing to do with lumber. There is no more important relationship in the world than that between our two countries.

We are also each other’s most important trading partner — and no other nation is even a close second. Michigan and Ontario, in particular, are heavily dependent on each other. Yet the Bush administration, which sees the rest of the world as its doormat or laboratory, has worked hard at souring the relationship.

Canadian diplomats have told me they have never seen a more arrogant bunch than the Bushies, especially after Sept. 11. Humiliations come small, large and stupid, such as our requirement that every Air Canada plane that even flies over the United States provide us with its passenger manifest.

Not that Canada is always right; there are plenty of politicians in Alberta and Quebec who take turns at appearing provincial and silly. I would have no problem with the United States making a reasoned argument — if one can be made — for why the treaty needs to be renegotiated on softwood lumber.

Yet this nation can’t go around breaking treaties we’ve signed whenever we feel like it. “The U.S. refusal to respect the international panel decisions [on softwood lumber] raises questions about America’s commitment to the rule of law,” the government of Canada says on its official Web site. This means, it adds, that “Canada has little confidence that our two countries can reach, in good faith, a long-term resolution to the dispute.”

That’s not only worrisome, it’s embarrassing. Might Canada retaliate and start sticking it to us on some trade matter? I asked the trade minister.

Entirely possible, he said. What about the prime minister bringing this up with the president directly? Has that ever happened? More than once, Peterson told me. “Bush just says, ‘settle it.’”

That’s our leader. You have to wonder what he would have said if Prime Minister Martin had said, “What if we switched to aluminum siding instead?”

Detroit Recount: Under normal circumstances, I would be opposed to Freman Hendrix’s decision to ask for a recount in the mayoral race. For one thing, the official count wasn’t even close. Kilpatrick had 123,140 votes to 108,600 for Hendrix. For another, a recount would be enormously expensive for impoverished Detroit. Yet these are not normal circumstances, primarily because of the questions raised about the honesty and competence of the process.

We already know about Jackie Currie’s “ambassadors” who “helped” old people vote; we know that test votes weren’t cleared from some of the machines before real votes were cast. Also, one election official took several thousand votes home for a day before turning them in. I don’t expect that a recount will change the result, but Detroiters deserve to know that there was integrity in democracy’s most sacred process.


Iraq War Update: Word from Washington’s talking heads is that, despite their nasty attacks on those who are calling for withdrawal, the Bushies have concluded that they have to start bringing a few troops home after the puppet government’s latest “election.” A slow withdrawal may sound good, but would actually be one of the worst things they could do.

Military experts who still think the war is “winnable” already say we have too few men there to get the job done. (Others of us think it can’t be won no matter what, and we need to declare victory and leave pretty much at once.)

But leaving a slowly dwindling force there will do what? Embolden the insurgents to kill them faster, naturally. Which would lead to ever-greater pressure for them to withdraw faster. No, they probably can’t all leave tomorrow.

However, our government could announce a plan that makes some sense. To the best of my knowledge, we don’t have any plan now, except to keep getting our soldiers blown up by roadside bombs.

Jack Lessenberry opines weekly for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected]. Hear him weekdays at 1 p.m. on WUOM (91.7 FM or
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