They were all smiles yesterday as the Montebello Summit broke up. They agreed to draw a protocol to deal with emergencies, such as terror attacks or pandemics that threaten to close down borders, promised to crack down on unsafe consumer goods, including toys, and vowed to seek practical solutions to environmental challenges.
Six years after the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the United States, having the leaders of Canada, the U.S. and Mexico get together regularly to discuss continental issues under the Security and Prosperity Partnership banner is not a bad thing. A retreat into isolation by the U.S. would serve no one's interests.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper, in particular, was able to bask for a moment yesterday as U.S. President George Bush paid gracious tribute to Canada for having "performed brilliantly" in Afghanistan, helping, he said, to strengthen democracy and suppress terror.
But beyond that cosmetic moment, Harper made scant headway with Bush advancing Canada's agenda. On issues that matter to Canadians, the Three Amigos summit with Mexican President Felipe Calderón failed to deliver. It didn't even come close.
Bush took note of Harper's claim to the Northwest Passage through the Arctic as a Canadian waterway, but pointedly offered no support. The U.S. continues to regard it as an international strait.
And on a slew of Canada/U.S. irritants that directly arise from 9/11, there was no measurable progress. No serious moves to ease the cross-border tie-ups that have damaged the Canadian and American economies to the tune of $14 billion since 9/11. No relief from Washington's vexing demand for passports. And little meeting of the minds on terror watch lists: While Canada and the U.S. claim to co-operate, the U.S. won't delist Maher Arar, who has been cleared as a suspect.
Apparently Harper did not even bother to ask Bush to release Omar Khadr, a Canadian who has been in U.S. custody since 2002 as a presumed terrorist, and who faces a military trial at Guantanamo Bay that would not stand the sniff test in any normal court of law.
The one message Bush seems to have taken to heart was Harper's warning that Ottawa may pull Canadian troops from combat in Afghanistan when their mission in Kandahar ends in February 2009. But Bush did not have to travel to Montebello to know that.
Bush, Harper and Calderón did feel the heat from protesters who objected, rightly, that business leaders were invited to Montebello to press behind closed doors for more continental integration.
But rather than open up the process, the leaders belittled their critics as alarmists. Harper looked especially bad when he facetiously asked: "Is the sovereignty of Canada going to fall apart if we standardize the jelly bean?" That is not the issue. The issue is secrecy. Even the Canadian American Business Council in Washington has criticized the "lack of transparency" in the summit process and has argued for wider input. Harper's attitude will just fuel public cynicism and suspicion.
In the end, Montebello was a summer photo op for three weak leaders, clouded by a hurricane. It left so much undone.