Three whacks in one visit. Was Hillary Clinton trying to set a bilateral record for hostal abuse? Her Ottawa visit has left many wondering: Why the rancour? Had she wanted to be diplomatic, all of her criticisms could have been delivered in private. She clearly did not want to be diplomatic.
What appeared to be a smooth-running bilateral relationship suddenly veered offside. But no one should be terribly surprised. What it comes down to is the basics. One government is conservative, the other liberal. It was never in the cards that they would see eye to eye for very long.
To date, Prime Minister Stephen Harper has done well in getting along with the Obama White House. Given the President's popularity in Canada, it's been the sensible thing to do. But what we've seen on the surface is not indicative of what's underneath.
The Liberals have been working behind the scenes to cement their party's relationship with the Democrats, while, at the same time, making sure that the Obama team knows where the Harper Tories are rooted. Liberals, including Bob Rae, have held unpublicized meetings with officials from the White House, the State Department and the Pentagon.
They report that the White House was hardly impressed, for example, at the sight of Pierre Poilievre, Mr. Harper's parliamentary secretary, and other Conservative MPs going down to attend Republican meetings. As the American political debate becomes poisonously polarized, the Obama administration's sensitivities to any conservative ideological bent have heightened. The Harper Tories are not in Sarah Palin's neighbourhood. Witness Afghanistan, for example, where they're more moderate than the Obama administration. But Liberals like to paint them as being in her region.
The Obama-Harper differences are on more than the three issues - maternal health, Arctic, Afghanistan - that Ms. Clinton raised. They differ on attitudes toward the Middle East and Muslims. On its effort to relocate Guantanamo inmates, the White House was annoyed that it received no help from Ottawa. On nuclear disarmament, an Obama priority, the United States has heard little but silence from Canada. On a broad range of social issues, the differences are deep.
Throw the Secretary of State's tendency to be blunt into the mix and the stage was set for her broadsides. On the Afghan war, Canada's exit position had been stated clearly to the Americans several times. As a parting gift, Ms. Clinton should have been presented with a hearing aid. On the fact that Canada didn't include all coastal countries as host of the Arctic meeting, she may have had a point. She made her views clear well before arriving in Ottawa. But was it really necessary to leak her remarks to the media, to slam the Harperites publicly and to skip out on a joint press conference, prompting other foreign ministers to do the same?
On the issue of maternal mortality and the need for access to abortion, Ms. Clinton's views should have come as no surprise. In case anyone wasn't aware, they got the news brusquely at a news conference. It is news that may well kill Mr. Harper's plan to make maternal health the centrepiece of this summer's G8 summit.
Through much of bilateral history, Democratic governments in the U.S. and Liberals in Canada have tended to be closely aligned. What never seems to work is the rare combination of Democratic administrations and Conservative incumbents north of the border. The last such combination of any reasonable duration was John Kennedy and John Diefenbaker, and that was a disaster. In the 1930s, Franklin Roosevelt didn't want to have much to do with R. B. Bennett. And back in the 1880s, Grover Cleveland and John A. Macdonald almost went to war.
Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff has a wide range of contacts, including economic guru Larry Summers, in the Obama White House. It's surprising that he's not yet been to Washington for an audience with the President to exploit their commonalities.
Now that the differences between the Democrats and the Conservatives are coming out into the open, that meeting might not be far off. Mr. Ignatieff would like nothing better than to cast himself in the Obama mould and the others at tea with Ms. Palin.