Will Stephen Harper have the guts to take on George W. Bush at the three amigos summit? Or will he collapse like a multilayered sponge cake?
If President Bush follows script, he will roll in to Montebello, crack that big Texas smile, do the chummy Hey Steve routine, and invite one and all to come Waltzing Matilda.
The buddy-buddy shtick is the Bush style with foreign leaders. He tried it with Vladimir Putin, the Russian strongman. Vlad the Impaler didn't buy in. He tried it with British leader Gordon Brown at Camp David. The Brit kept his distance, didn't don any Ban-Lon shirts - and was hailed by his country's media for not doing a major suck-up number in the mode of his unctuous predecessor.
At Montebello, the plan is for Mr. Harper to be cool and businesslike. An official familiar with the briefing notes prepared for the PM says he will disagree with the President on the contentious issue of the barricading of the Canada-U.S. border.
Passports, guns and more walls along the 49th parallel are coming our way, all courtesy of what one foreign diplomat uncharitably refers to as Mr. Bush's Department of Homeland Stupidity.
The further we get from 9/11 the more the paranoia in that department intensifies. An Ottawa-backed plan for inland pre-clearance to expedite border crossings has been rejected. The likely consequence will be delays that could significantly curtail commerce.
Mr. Harper, according to the briefing notes, will tell the President his border policy will hurt not only the two economies, but also the comfortable relationship between the two peoples. The message will be to leave the innocent traveller alone.
On the question of the Security and Prosperity Partnership, no big-bang announcements are planned, just technical advances. Though Washington may wish to significantly harmonize security and economic approaches, for the majority of Canadians, that dog won't hunt.
Harmony is not what they have in mind with a presidency widely viewed as the worst since Warren Harding ushered in the honky-tonk twenties by running the White House like a distillery one day, a casino the next.
Politically, Mr. Harper can't be seen as getting too close to the Bush brigade. Conjures up images of stepping into a black helicopter. On this side of the border there are still some outdated advocates of ever-increasing continental integration. They forget that the galaxy - with China, India, Russia, Brazil becoming giant new players - has changed. Mr. Harper is starting to see the world in a broader context.
That said, don't expect him to stiff-arm the President. The two leaders are, after all, conservative brethren and, for the good or bad of their parties, allowances must be made. The Prime Minister will not challenge this President as John Diefenbaker challenged John Kennedy on nuclear warheads, as Lester Pearson challenged Lyndon Johnson on Vietnam, as Pierre Trudeau pressed Ronald Reagan on a Cold War thaw, as Jean Chrétien challenged GWB on Iraq, or as R. B. Bennett dodged the decidedly unpopular Herbert Hoover in the dirty thirties. Mr. Bennett, no box-office bonanza himself, refused to have his picture taken with the Depression president.
Certainly a case could be put forward that Mr. Harper should follow the lead of some of his testy predecessors. Few presidents in history have a worse record on bilateral affairs or have been more inimical to Canada's multilateral interests. As well as ramping up the border, the Bush administration undermined free trade with its handling of the softwood lumber issue. Its debt-laden approach to economic management imperils our economic stability. The President, who ignored Canada in his famous post-9/11 speech to Congress, has scorned numerous multilateral treaties to which we have adhered. His diversion of military resources to Iraq has hamstrung the prospects for the progress of our troops in Afghanistan.
When the 43rd President sports his aw-shucks grin, the Prime Minister, who is judiciously spending more time at the summit with the third amigo, Felipe Calderon of Mexico, must bear this record in mind.
The charm masks a lot. Best to remember, with respect to Mr. Bush or, even better, Dick Cheney, what Churchill once said of Stanley Baldwin. "He occasionally stumbled over the truth but hastily picked himself up and moved on as if nothing had happened."
A lot has happened under these guys. Nothing to occasion smiles in Montebello.