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Remember when Defence Minister John McCallum "misspoke"?

Mr. McCallum strayed from the government's line after meeting U.S. Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld on Jan. 9 in Washington. Canada, the minister said, might participate in a military invasion of Iraq without United Nations sanction. Jean Chrétien then rapped Mr. McCallum's knuckles.

But something else happened in Washington, or rather did not happen, according to diplomats in Ottawa. Mr. McCallum had wanted to meet important people on Capitol Hill, particularly senators and members of the House of Representatives. Instead, he got only one meeting.

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Canada's Defence Minister couldn't get meetings with people who are somebodies on Capitol Hill. Everyone was busy, as they always are in political Washington, and people presumably reasoned: Why waste time with a minister from a country whose defence contributions are so marginal?

A small incident, to be sure. It was part of a piece, however, of how insignificant Canada has become in the eyes of those who influence U.S. foreign and defence policy. Want to talk softwood lumber or wheat? No problem. Want to talk about something global? Sorry, we're kind of busy.

Last night, President George W. Bush delivered his State of the Union address. Remember his speech to Congress in which he thanked countries, including El Salvador and Australia, for their contribution to the "war" against terror but forgot Canada? An oversight, it was hurriedly explained. Countries that count don't get overlooked.

It's not so much that Canada is for or against U.S. policies, although the Americans would obviously prefer that we were with them all the way. It's more that Canada often cannot make up its mind, or delays so long that when a decision is taken it's become irrelevant, or backs the U.S. with what a Canadian diplomat has accurately called "calculating calculation." These habits are layered with that reflexive and, to U.S. ears, intensely irritating and totally groundless blather about Canada's moral superiority.

These are hard times for Canada, and for other U.S. allies. Most of the assumptions that underpinned Canada's policy toward the U.S. either no longer apply or have been severely shaken, so that Canada is thrashing around trying to figure out how to respond to its giant neighbour.

Multilateralism? The U.S. has not discarded multilateral institutions but now picks which ones it will use.

"Coalitions of the willing"? The phrase is Mr. Rumsfeld's; the idea germinated in the previous Bush administration among those working for then defence secretary (and now Vice-President) Dick Cheney. It essentially means that fixed alliances (NATO?) are of diminishing use. Coalitions now fit the circumstances. They will be led by Washington, which will define the missions. Follow or be forgotten.

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Mr. Rumsfeld said it perfectly in relation to defence spending in Canada and in other countries: "I don't have any expectation of any kind from any country as to what they will or won't do. And my view is, every country ought to do what they darn well please."

In other words, the United States doesn't need anyone else. Fixed alliances have "expectations" of all member countries, "coalitions of the willing" do not.

"International law"? Canada has always been a stickler for legality -- UN resolutions, tribunals, precedents, that sort of thing. Superpowers rely on international law when they choose so, and flout it when necessary. When Secretary of State Colin Powell says his country could exercise its "sovereign right" to attack Iraq, he is presumably referring to the right of "self-defence." Except that Iraq doesn't threaten the U.S.

Iraq is governed by a regime that has done all sorts of grisly deeds at home and abroad. But unless the U.S. can demonstrate an Iraqi link to al-Qaeda or Baghdad's possession of "weapons of mass destruction" -- neither of which have yet been demonstrated -- then international law gives no country a "sovereign right" that Mr. Powell claimed.

By instinct, the Chrétien government prefers the Franco-German approach to Iraq, but it cannot say so directly because it does not want to cross the Bush administration. So the government prevaricates, hoping that something short of war will turn up or that a Security Council consensus can be found to which Canada subscribes.

We have no policy on the substance of the issue, at least one we are prepared to state publicly, except to be preoccupied with process. Countries whose policy is process find meetings hard to arrange in the imperial capital.

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