Oh, Canada

April 21, 2003

WITH LESS THAN three weeks' notice, President Bush canceled a state visit to Ottawa scheduled for May 5, saying he was too busy. The next day, he invited Australian Prime Minister John Howard to a sleepover at his Texas ranch May 2 and 3.

No experience at reading diplomatic tea leaves is required to decipher that message. It was delivered with all the subtlety of a sledgehammer. Canada is being snubbed because of Prime Minister Jean Chretien's failure to back the United States in its war to oust Saddam Hussein's regime from Iraq, while Mr. Howard is being rewarded with a rare treat for his support.

No one begrudges favors for the Australian leader, who took a huge political risk in contributing troops to Mr. Bush's "coalition of the willing." But the rude behavior toward Canada is part of a broader pattern of vindictiveness that diminishes both President Bush and the nation he represents.

The president also seems to have set a tone for the way Americans treat each other that suggests dissent is disloyal, unpatriotic -- even traitorous. In this atmosphere, actors Tim Robbins and Susan Sarandon, who represent a long tradition of liberal Hollywood challenging Washington, are being demonized in a manner reminiscent of the 1950s' blacklists.

At a time when the United States has taken upon itself the mission of bringing democracy to Iraq, it seems ever more vital that Americans demonstrate how democracy works. Discussion, debate, disagreement, dissent are all healthy. The best policies are usually forged when competing views are blended and compromised.

At the end, when decisions are made, votes are taken, wise leaders respond graciously in victory or defeat.

America's relationship with Canada will survive the Bush-Chretien tiff, of course. As Secretary of State Colin L. Powell observed, the two nations are "inseparable," literally and figuratively. Among the latest joint concerns is the outbreak of SARS in Toronto, not far from the U.S. border.

And Mr. Chretien bears some blame for the personal rancor.

He was close to former President Bill Clinton, and his nephew -- then Canada's U.S. ambassador -- rooted openly for former Vice President Al Gore to defeat Mr. Bush in their 2000 contest.

But by canceling an Ottawa visit that would have been viewed as a generous gesture by a president in triumph, Mr. Bush lost an opportunity to win speedy help from the Canadians in rebuilding Iraq -- doubtless a much more difficult, lengthy and expensive project than the military campaign.

Shortly after the Sept. 11 attacks, Mr. Bush warned the world: "Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists." That "with us or against us" policy may apply to war on terrorism, but it's a dangerous and self-defeating approach to take to every challenge that comes along.

If complete support and total agreement are the criteria, we may soon have no friends left.

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