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Chretien eager to be ‘first’ to meet Bush

SHARE Chretien eager to be ‘first’ to meet Bush

OTTAWA — Canadian officials deny it, but Prime Minister Jean Chretien's almost unseemly rush to be the first foreign leader to meet President Bush next week signals competition with Mexico and others for U.S. attention.

Chretien aides pushed for what is widely seen in Ottawa as the consolation prize — a meeting Monday in Washington before Bush sets off to meet Mexican President Vicente Fox on Feb. 16. Chretien trumpeted it as a success for Canada.

"It is a sign of friendship," Chretien told Parliament Wednesday. "I will be the first leader to meet with the president of the United States since he is president."

But it reflects the reality of Mexico's increasing economic importance that Bush set his first foreign visit to Mexico, breaking the U.S. presidential tradition of going to Canada first.

Critics of Canadian policy say Bush's choice of Mexico may also be due to Canada's waning military power, its willingness to differ from the United States an some issues, and the more natural affiliation that Liberal Chretien had with Democratic former President Bill Clinton.

But U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell spun the rivalry rather differently to reporters in Washington Tuesday.

"President Bush's decision to travel to Mexico as his first foreign visit is powerful evidence of the special place Mexico holds in our national priorities," he said.

Chretien and Clinton seemed to heartily enjoy each other as "new democrats" and took every opportunity to golf together, but the two nations often clashed on subjects as diverse as Cuba, missile defense and grain.

"This government, over the past seven years, seems to take pleasure in tweaking the nose of the United States," said the leader of the official opposition Canadian Alliance, Stockwell Day, describing Ottawa's position as often simplistic.

"I hope that the partisan position of this government towards the new administration has not handicapped this (bilateral) relationship, and therefore diminished our chances of success as we negotiate everything from farm subsidies to softwood lumber to environmental accords."

Aside from whatever irritants there may have been, it is always a battle to grab the attention of the world superpower.