For the eight years that George W. Bush was in office, Canada had very little if any influence on American foreign policy. Former prime minister Jean Chrétien took care of that.

He turned down Bush's attempts to lure Canada into the Iraq invasion. Chrétien made it clear that he didn't believe the arguments about Saddam having weapons of mass destruction and that he wanted the United Nations to be involved in any military action. He then lobbied the Security Council against Washington's plan and, in short, made a nuisance of himself.

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U.S. Defence Secretary Robert Gates once criticized NATO forces for not knowing how to deal with insurgencies. Then said he wasn't referring to Canada. (Associated Press) ((Kevin Wolf/Associated Press))

The majority of Canadians supported Chrétien's independence but Bush ignored Canada as a result.

Canada did join the U.S.- and NATO-led force in Afghanistan. And while our country's troops have performed admirably, Bush's heart was never in that conflict. Iraq was his main preoccupation.

But President Barack Obama has redefined Afghanistan as the "central front" in the battle against extremism, which gives Canada a new and bigger voice in policy there if Prime Minister Stephen Harper chooses to play his cards right.

The economy first

The White House announced today that Obama will travel to Canada on Feb. 19 — the first foreign trip of his presidency and, aides have indicated, the only one he will make before going to Europe later in the year.

Obama's staff says he wants to concentrate on the economic crisis and feels the need to stay at home.

The economic situation plays large in Canada as well and it will clearly dominate the Ottawa talks. What the two neighbours do can have an enormous impact on each other. When Congress voted bailout money for the U.S. auto industry, Canada did the same for its portion of the Big Three automakers.

We can expect then that there will be a great deal of cooperation and calibration between Ottawa and Washington in the weeks and months ahead.

In his White House briefing, Obama spokesman Robert Gibbs said that it was "safe to say that the health of each economy will be a large part of the agenda. Trade will be part of the docket."

So, too, one expects, will be environment and energy, where the news for Canada could be mixed.

One hopes, however, that a large part of the agenda will concern the war that both countries are fighting in Afghanistan.

Downward spiral

Obama pledged during his presidential campaign to "finish the job" there. But it is going to be much harder than he thought.

This week, he called the Afghan situation "perilous." His newly-appointed special envoy, Richard Holbrooke, described it as " a daunting task," adding that "nobody can say the war in Afghanistan is going well."

They are not alone in that assessment. On Monday, Defence Secretary Robert Gates, the holdover from the Bush administration, told a press conference, "the goals we did have for Afghanistan are too broad and too far in the future.

"We need more concrete goals that can be achieved realistically within three or five years, in terms of re-establishing control in certain areas, providing security for the population, going after al-Qaeda, and preventing the re-establishment of terrorism."

One senior military commander went further, telling the Washington Post, "we have no strategic plan" and that "we never had one" during the Bush years. "Obama's first order of business is to explain to the American people what the mission is in Afghanistan."

A card to play

So as the generals, politicians and White House are scrambling over their options, that could open a door for Canada.

Few countries know more about the current conflict in Afghanistan than Canada. We've been there since 9/11 in one shape or another. Our troops there win accolades for their professionalism. We unfortunately know of the errors and mistakes.

The Obama-Harper meeting is an opportunity for a straightforward assessment from Canada about the road ahead. Not criticism, but advice from a partner who has been there — and will be there alongside the Americans still for at least another two years.

In this area especially, Canada has earned the right to influence Washington and our European partners. 

The Afghan surge

It has already been determined that the number of U.S. troops in Afghanistan will double this year, rising to about 60,000. But no one in the Obama administration — or the U.S. military — believes that the war will be won by the armed forces alone.

The additional troops will merely prevent a bad situation from getting worse.

Some Afghan proposals call for more focus on the regions, at the expense of the central government headed by President Hamid Karzai. Others say the answer is to protect the large cities, letting the Taliban have its way in the countryside, and gradually expand out the security cordon.

Pretty much everyone says that development assistance, currently a chaotic and wasteful mess with more than 40 governments, the UN and countless non-governmental organizations often working at cross-purposes, needs to be changed.

And key players, like Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Holbrooke, the special envoy, want tougher action taken against the opium trade to cut into the Taliban's financial backbone.

Decision time

When it comes to a new plan for Afghanistan, there is a decision deadline for the Obama administration and this is where Prime Minister Harper and the Ottawa visit comes in.

Obama meets with Harper in February and then his only other trip in the foreseeable future is to Strasbourg, France, in April to meet NATO leaders.

There he needs to present a comprehensive plan to the Europeans to show he has right ideas and the leadership to get the job done.

Bush beat his head against the NATO wall, but Obama is very popular on the other side of the Atlantic and this will be his moment to ask the Europeans to show their love.

There is another reason for Canada to air its views.

In a reply posted to a column I wrote several weeks ago, a young woman took me to task for calling the Afghanistan campaign a failure. She wrote that her boyfriend was leaving for a second tour of duty there and that neither he nor his fellow soldiers thought their efforts were in vain.

That is certainly true, our soldiers have been heroes.

We know that the Canadian military mission is scheduled to end in 2011 and there have been all kinds of recommendations about what to do next.

But this young lady, her boyfriend, those who have died, their families and the Canadians who have borne the financial cost have earned the right to know — and to have a say — in how the Afghan war is to be waged.

Prime Minister Harper should speak out clearly and publicly on what Canada wants, expects and hopes for Afghanistan at a time when the rest of the world is debating what to do.

Canadians have earned it.