By Brian Lee Crowley

Paul Martin has just flubbed the single biggest test of his prime ministership. And no amount of adulation from a few tame delegates to the Liberal convention last weekend will change that.

The decision was over missile defence. I have absolutely no difficulty with Canada taking a different view of missile defence – or any other issue, for that matter – than our neighbour and ally. But where we differ from the United States, disagreeing must promote our vital interests. Our relationship with the US is too deep, too broad, too complex and too vital to our well-being, for us to offend them gratuitously.

Instead, the prime minister clearly gave the Americans to understand that he intended to participate, and that it was in the interests of Canada to do so. Then, having led them on for months, he unceremoniously dumped them at the altar, the runaway bride of continental politics.

Why? Good question. Because the prime minister never made a strong case for or against missile defence. He merely sniffed the political wind and decided that this was not a battle he wanted to fight. He abandoned the field to missile defence’s opponents, and then took fright because the only voices he heard were theirs.

Yet the prime minister’s job is to distill the national interest to its essence, and to convince Canadians to share his vision of how to defend and promote that interest. Prime ministers who do that well and clearly, even at the cost of short term unpopularity, win the respect of their population and voters. Those who don’t, don’t.

Missile defence is a forward-looking policy of ensuring that rogue states – that are working hard to acquire missiles to use against North American targets – will find those targets defended. This is not the weaponisation of space. It is a means of defence against those who would send missiles through space to attack cities on this continent. Canada tracks such missiles, but apparently opposes using that information to defend ourselves against them.

Missile defence is broadly supported in the US political establishment. Bill Clinton was just as supportive of it as George W. Bush and John Kerry.

The Americans asked for no money, no siting of defensive missiles on Canadian soil. They asked their neighbour, friend and ally to say they supported US efforts to find a way to defend the continent against a credible threat of attack. And we said no.

The entire US political establishment is offended. And what did we get in return? Absolutely nothing, other than to give comfort to regimes like Pyongyang and lessened goodwill when we try to resolve issues around free trade and border management.

A determined and articulate prime minister, with fire in the belly to defend Canada’s interests, would have been able to sway public opinion, and brought his own caucus and many opposition MPs into line – who wants to be accused of voting against the superior interests of Canada?

Apparently, though, that prime minister is not Paul Martin.

For Commentary, I’m Brian Lee Crowley in Halifax

Brian Lee Crowley is President of the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies. He can be reached online at [email protected] .