Canada, Mexico responses reflect conflict

North and south of the United States, old phobias and nationalist sensibilities are resurfacing and restraining Canada and Mexico from giving unconditional support to the U.S. campaign against terrorism.

In Canada, that has led political foes to accuse Prime Minister Jean Chretien of excessive caution for trying to resist being swept into a U.S.-led coalition.

In Mexico, meanwhile, Foreign Minister Jorge Castaneda has faced calls that he resign for his unequivocal declaration of solidarity with Washington after the Sept. 11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. The two countries' responses reflect their long-conflicted relationships with their powerful neighbor -- and their desire to be an ally without sacrificing their ability to act independently. They also share a preference for caution over confrontation.

Mexican President Vicente Fox went to Washington for a high-profile summit with President Bush less than a week before the attacks. On Sept. 11, he sent Bush a letter with a handwritten salutation pledging "all my solidarity." But until Tuesday evening, when he spoke of his "unconditional" support, Fox had barely mentioned the U.S. situation in numerous speeches, which focused instead on domestic issues.

Yet while he remained quiet, criticism of Washington's handling of the crisis has appeared in Mexican newspaper columns, some equating the emerging U.S. response to the original terrorist acts.

Leftist intellectual Victor Flores Olea, a deputy foreign minister in the previous government, wrote in this week's edition of the newsmagazine Proceso about Bush's speech to Congress on Thursday: "The [U.S.] reaction turns out to be as guilty and criminal as the attack. ... The fundamentalists on one side are being answered with a multiple fundamentalism [that] is taking advantage of the event to expand even more its political and military presence."

Such remarks stem from an ingrained skepticism of close relations with the United States that stretches back to the invasion that ultimately annexed half of Mexico's territory in 1847. Polls show overwhelming public support for staying out of any armed conflict that could result from the U.S. response, even though the Bush administration has made it clear that it seeks no military involvement by Mexico.

On the other hand, some Mexican figures have responded angrily to what they perceive as churlish and lukewarm condemnation by political commentators as well as government officials.

Homero Aridjis, a poet and environmental activist, fumed at "a visceral and obsolete anti-Americanism that comes from the 1960s and prevents real Mexican solidarity with the United States. This makes me ashamed as a Mexican because we have such a strong historical and cultural relationship and we share a [2,000-mile] border."

However, Foreign Minister Castaneda, himself from the political left, has noted that given the complex economic and social links between Mexico and the U.S., the Latin nation has hardly any choice but to support Bush. As he told an interviewer, if Mexico withheld support, Americans could reply later when Mexico wanted something: "Hold on, you are the ones who didn't support us, remember? You said there were historic sensibilities, this and that. Very well, you have every right to do so -- and we also have the right to choose our friends."

In Canada, political foes have chastised Chretien for what they called a timid and tardy response. Though Chretien telephoned Bush with condolences on the day of the attacks, he didn't make any high-profile gestures of solidarity -- such as offering military support or visiting New York or Washington -- the way French President Jacques Chirac and British Prime Minister Tony Blair did.

At home, Chretien made efforts to continue business as usual, his aides said.

"Terrorism is not an act, it's an effect," he is said to have told his advisors. "If you give in to it, they've won."

Across the country, though, the response has been intense. Initially, between 35 and 60 Canadians were reported missing in the World Trade Center rubble. Canadian airports harbored passengers from 247 diverted flights. On Sept. 14, 100,000 mourners gathered at Parliament Hill in Ottawa, the capital, and since Sept. 11, Canadians have donated $3.2 million to charities responding to the crisis.

As in Mexico, though, there is a split between those who say Canada should do more to help and those who argue that the nation should not follow the U.S. blindly into war.

Despite the passionate popular response, the official chill from the north meant that Canada's initial assistance went unnoticed -- or at least unremarked on. Bush failed to mention Canada in his speech to Congress -- although he did thank 13 other nations. Canadians felt snubbed, and they blamed Chretien.

Joe Clark, a former prime minister who heads the Progressive Conservative Party, said, "In American eyes -- in the eyes of our allies against terror -- Canada is not doing enough to be noticed."

Chretien visited Washington on Monday -- but not New York. And Bush had to deflect criticism that Canada was slow to respond to the attacks and that he in turn had snubbed Canada.

"I didn't think it was necessarily important to praise a brother," the president told reporters as he and Chretien walked across the White House lawn.

Bush did not ask Chretien for any specific military assistance but did request help with intelligence gathering and securing the countries' mutual border.

Chretien said, "I told him that if they needed help, we will be there."

But that might depend greatly on what the U.S. needs. Some Canadians fear that they could be swept into a full-scale military operation, as they have been dragged into other U.S. endeavors.

"We've been through Vietnam, which was a wrong war," said David Malone, a former Canadian ambassador to the United Nations. "There's a certain reserve among Canadians over U.S. political enthusiasms."