Call it Step One in President Bush's second-term charm offensive, an effort to salve the sore feelings his first term left in some parts of the world. The president's trip to Canada was a kind of dry-run for forays into Europe slated for early 2005.
President Bush had not yet made an official visit to Canada, attending two conferences that happened to be held there but never calling on the capital city of Ottawa. A visit scheduled a year and a half ago was postponed at a low point in relations between the Republican president's administration and that of Liberal Prime Minister Jean Chretien, an outspoken opponent of the U.S. war in Iraq.
There's a new prime minister now, another Liberal, but one whose language in regard to the White House has been much more congenial and accommodating. So the moment was right to reschedule the visit and, perhaps, resume the traditional cross-border friendship.
The rhetoric was all about shared values. And the American president got right to it with the opening line in a speech in Halifax, referring to the new Prime Minister Paul Martin.
"Paul and I share a vision for the future, two prosperous independent nations joined together by the return of NHL hockey."
The line drew a big laugh, and hearty applause: National Hockey League fans from Vancouver (and Toronto and Montreal) to Tampa (and Boston and Detroit) are suffering though a labor dispute that has shut down the current season.
But the show of camaraderie could not entirely conceal the lingering differences between these two countries, and the lack of a substantive achievement to be announced after the two leaders' meeting.
There was no deal on the American ban on certain Canadian cattle in the wake of the mad cows scare of a year and a half ago. The president tried to defuse that issue by blaming bureaucrats. "I don't know if you've got a bureaucracy here in Canada or not," he deadpanned, "but we've got one in America."
Likewise, there was no deal on softwood lumber. The U.S. has slapped tariffs on Canadian imports citing government subsidies to Canadian lumber industry.
On Iraq, the larger message was to let bygones be bygones. Both leaders said they agreed on working to make democracy succeed. But President Bush did not want to give a speech to the Canadian Parliament in Ottawa, preferring to avoid the high likelihood of heckling there on the war issue. So he spoke instead in Halifax, where he could not resist a jab at the U.N.'s decision not to support the war. He said the U.N. should stand behind its own resolutions and back them up with consequences.
The president also ventured into other areas that did not cast his host, the prime minister, in the best light. The president cited the historical case of Canadian Prime Minister MacKenzie King, an early supporter of the Allied cause in World War II (while the U.S. was still neutral). King was a vocal supporter of battling The Enemy overseas "before he reaches our shores." President Bush implied that the two countries had now reversed roles, with the U.S. more aggressively pursuing pre-emptive defense.
The president also twice brought up his plans for a missile defense shield, urging Canada to become a partner in the project. Canadians oppose the anti-ballistic missile system and had been led to believe it would not come up in these talks.
Even mentioning the topic put Martin in a difficult position, given how unpopular the idea is among his Liberal Party supporters. Many of the protestors who marched during the Bush visit carried signs that said "DON'T WEAPONIZE SPACE."
If this trip was a dress rehearsal for the president's upcoming trip to renew ties in Europe, it was not entirely encouraging. The Canadians were polite, but not particularly pleased with much of what Mr. Bush had to say. Maybe his best shot, as the most powerful man in the world, would have been to get the NHL back in play. Alas, such magic is not within the powers of the executive.
In the meantime, the attempts to charm will continue when the president gets to Europe, even if Mr. Bush is unwilling to give much on the issues. But expect the European audience to be tougher, even more skeptical, and certainly less eager to be friends. And the president's hockey joke won't work.
Maybe he can tell them how much he loves soccer.