Justin Trudeau doubles down

The Liberal leader is against the mission continuing, as he was against it beginning. Here’s Paul Wells on the politics of foreign policy

Liberal leader Trudeau receives a standing ovation from his caucus in the House of Commons in Ottawa. (CP Photo)

Liberal leader Trudeau receives a standing ovation from his caucus in the House of Commons in Ottawa. (CP Photo)

As trivial pursuits go, it’s hard to imagine a more trivial one—I’m trying to imagine how Michael Ignatieff would have handled the challenge another Liberal leader faced today. Trudeau got in several kinds of trouble, after all, with his decision last October to join the NDP in opposing the Canadian Forces’ intervention in Iraq. The Ottawa pundit class lined up pretty solidly against him on that one. Worse, arguably, a truly weird late-summer burst in public support for the Liberals, as measured through several polls, ended more or less at the moment he joked about Stephen Harper’s CF-18s.

Now it’s six months later, the Harper government was seeking to extend the mission on near-identical terms (although now CF-18s will sometimes fly into Syrian airspace as well), and the Mulcair NDP had already announced it will oppose the mission once again. Three weeks ago, it had seemed Trudeau was using a TV appearance to test the public appetite for a change of heart. I ran into a Liberal MP on Metcalfe Street soon after, who asked what I thought his leader would do next on the file. I left with the impression it was all up in air.

But when the moment to pick a lane arrived this morning, Trudeau didn’t let the suspense last long.

Related: Inside Canada’s new war

He’s against the mission continuing, as he was against it beginning. Comparing his speech to his opponents’, I was struck by how narrowly he focused on that. Tom Mulcair’s remarks drew heavily on historical precedent—Afghanistan and Libya, in particular, as two cases of high hopes that turned sour. Harper, meanwhile, pointed out that Canadian troops are part of a broad coalition of the sort of countries with which Canada normally likes to surround itself. Only Harper, for instance, mentioned Barack Obama by name, because even though he can barely stand the guy, he understands that Obama is generally popular in Canada.

Related: John Geddes on recalling when Harper was fed up with fighting 

Everyone was guilty of a little cheap hocus-pocus. The Prime Minister referred to the other coalition members as “United Nations members,” which is true in the sense that that term is more or less synonymous with “countries,” but they are not acting here under a UN mandate, so he was basically blowing smoke. Mulcair purported to spot a Harper plot to coordinate with and prop up Syria’s Assad regime. He was plainly reading from remarks written before Harper told the House that Canada will not seek Syrian government permission before operating over Syria. Trudeau found the expansion into Syrian airspace alarming, even though his best man on the file, Irwin Cotler, demanded such an expansion six months ago. It was not one of the great debates, even by House of Commons standards.

My assignment today, as we divvied up coverage chores, was to focus on the party politics, so I won’t belabour the question of substance except to say I support extending the mission. In that, I seem to be pretty clearly in the majority. The polls I’ve seen, including some that Jason Kenney was tweeting during his lunch hour, suggest Canadians support what the Harper government is doing in Iraq by about two to one. And Harper has that majority support all to himself; three parties are fighting for their share of the minority position.

Related: What the leaders said about expanding the mission against Islamic State

Trudeau’s bet is, essentially, that the substance of the ISIS debate is less salient than the more general impression that he is a straight and consistent shooter. He is beginning to be predictable, at least: whether the issue is legalized marijuana, niqab-covered faces, boycotting Sun News or forbidding pro-life stances in his caucus, he doubles down on his positions once they get him in trouble. The contrast with Ignatieff, and with some other Liberal leaders of the past, is refreshing. Liberal caucus members can stop asking whether he’ll shift positions once things get hot; he plainly likes the heat and isn’t for shifting. The question of the year will be whether Canadians judge Trudeau, on the whole, to be on the right side of these debates. Consistency is worth noting, but it’s not the whole game. Stéphane Dion was a straight shooter too.


Justin Trudeau doubles down

  1. There are many canadians against a long drawn out war against an indefinite enemy with questionable allies. I believe that Canada should stay out of such conflicts other than to help the victims and find a non-violent solution. We cannot impose our way of thinking on people from other cultures with different values and we shouldn’t try. I think western countries have caused enough problems in the middle east and should just back off.

    • But, literally dozens of organizations operating on the ground have sounded the alarm about the risk of ISIL engaging in widespread ethnic cleansing. They already have to a degree, but the fear is that they have the weapons and money to kill hundreds of thousands of innocent people unless we stand up to them now.
      Even the Liberal’s own foreign policy playbook — which emerged out of the horror of Rwanda by the way — demands an armed response from the civilized world.
      Also, you’ll have to forgive my narrow gaze at someone who suggests we find a non-violent solution to this war, with an enemy that has displayed exactly zero capacity for compromise. So let’s be clear, there is no non-violent solution to ISIL.
      Another thing we can be clear about, the Canadian mission in Iraq is not large enough to win the conflict outright. No one is disputing that. The goal here is to deliver a modicum of justice to the nut-jobs who are running around unchecked. This war is going to be won by the Americans and their amazingly dangerous modern weaponry. But, if you leave ISIL to marinate — like we did in Afghanistan in the ’80s — you’ll have a problem that is ten-fold more dangerous than exists today.

      • Ah, the objective is to protect civilians.
        So we’ll be targeting the forces responsible for by far the largest number of civilian casualties, the Assad regime, right?

        • Canada has Moved to a ‘ Preemptive Military Strike ‘ indoctrination, using this incursion to make that point. David Frum must be advising Harper, he did it for Bush..

        • Many of those “civilians” Assad was targeting are the same ISIS scum we’re fighting we’re fighting now.

          • Ah, no. Quite the opposite.
            Most of those civilians are…civilians. He’s incinerating them with barrel bombs, starving them in sieges, torturing and executing them. And in numbers much greater than those killed by IS.

    • I think Justin Trudeau has made the right decision not to support the Conservative war against the “Islamic State”. Jéan Chretien, who has half a century of political experience, warned Canada last fall that this mission would turn into a long drawn-out conflict that would bog us down in the Middle East long-term. It shows good judgment by Trudeau that he has followed the wisdom of Chrétien. Afterall, in 2003, it was Chrétien who got the Iraq War call right by keeping Canada out, and Harper who got it wrong by wanting us in.

      Secondly, I’m not sure why it’s the responsibility of Justin Trudeau & the Liberals to sign off on Harper’s war motion. The Liberals are the third party in this Parliament. Why is there so much scrutiny and pressure on what Trudeau & the Liberals do? How come the NDP, who are the Official Opposition, are allowed to vote against the war, but the Liberals aren’t? As Wells says, Trudeau was criticized by the Ottawa pundits last Fall for opposing the war. How come? His opposition is based on a firm foundation (the guidance of PM Chrétien).

  2. I say let them sort out their own problems.

    • Because that worked out so well in pre-2001 Afghanistan when we let them “sort out” their problems with the Taliban, right?

  3. Justin is an imbecile and his brain trust is out to lunch on this one.

    • Please explain your statement with some concrete examples, instead of name calling names like school bully so that we could have some intelligent conversations.

      • Justin Trudeau is an imbecile because he’s being politically expedient instead of doing the right thing. His advisers are telling him to oppose the mission to appear “consistent” when public opinion is clearly against his position.

  4. …he doubles down on his positions once they get him in trouble. The contrast with Ignatieff, and with some other Liberal leaders of the past, is refreshing.

    But sadly, sounds more and more like Harper Lite. And that is definitely not refreshing.

      • His general tendency to double down rather than adjust his position, for one. Frankly, on this particular issue I’m very much of two minds and respect his decision – but not so much on others. Notably, C-51, where he just went with the polls – and now seems stuck to that (political rather than principled) decision. That one’s gonna hurt him.

        There’s also a certain dictatorial streak, where he makes public announcements (seemingly) before discussing with his caucus. They seem to have been taken aback a few times. Harper at least seems to fill his team in on the direction he’s planning to take before speaking publicly. Either that or they are better poker players.

        He also seems to not want a “big tent” party; only one viewpoint allowed.

        I get JT doesn’t want to seem wishy-washy, but maybe he should think a bit more – and discuss with his team a bit more – before he speaks.

        Meantime, for me his support of C-51 is a deal-breaker. If we’re going to have a surveillance state, it doesn’t really matter to me who the spies report to – Harper or Harper Lite. So I’ll be voting NDP or Green, unless JT comes to his senses.

        • Well I am not sure he does not discuss things with caucus (other than the expulsion of the liberal senators, and that was obviously because he did not want that one leaked out before he spoke to the people he was actually expelling). My take is that the CPC MP’s are accustomed to NOT being consulted.

          I also disagree on your assertion he only wants one viewpoint. Other than abortion (and you and I have discussed this before. I do not agree with you that he is barring anti-choice candidates from running) do you have any other examples of Trudeau refusing to allow other viewpoints in the party? There will always be some issues where the leader places restrictions. They are the leader and that is why they were elected to lead. And some views have no place in the liberal party (anyone who says we should restrict immigration to white Europeans would likely be barred from running too).

          As for the rest, though I disagree I respect your decision. For a while there I was getting the impression you were dissatisfied with Trudeau for things that both Mulcair and Harper also do. I respect your decision to stand firm on the C-51 being a deal breaker for you. For me the deal breaker would be if he permitted MP’s to vote to restrict a woman’s right to choose. We all have our lines in the sand.

          • I am not sure he does not discuss things with caucus (other than the expulsion of the liberal senators, and that was obviously because he did not want that one leaked out before he spoke to the people he was actually expelling).

            That might be a valid defense, except for the fact that he made the announcement to the media before he told the Senators themselves.

        • Not true. He told them first and announced it just after he told them.

  5. Well, I guess if this issue is the number one election issue in October, Justin Trudeau just lost.

  6. Vietnam with a bit of Bush Iraq stirred in.
    If Trudeau had supported Harper on this he would drive progressives including Chrétien Liberals into the arms of Mulcair.
    He let us down on the Secret Police bill so this would have been a permanent game changer.
    Who does he need most? Soft Cons voters, or less than fully committed normally NDP voters?
    But no doubt NDP is firming up support on the traditional left.

    • Ya, those “progressive” Chretien Liberals are really anti-war…. unless it’s Afghanistan then they’ve got no problem sending hundreds of Canadian soldiers to their deaths.

  7. Trudeau: “Eff the responsibility to protect”.

    Trudeau says he is opposed to abortion, but he aborted the Liberal’s baby, the one they proudly claimed paternity of, the responsibility to protect.

    He’s “spitting” on Romeo Dallaire’s grave.

    • Hello Syrians! We’re here to protect you!
      *waves at passing Assad aircraft en route to incinerate civilians with barrel bombs*

      • Are you unaware, or simply don’t care, that many of those “civilians” that Assad has been bombing for the last couple of years are in fact the very same ISIS barbarians we’re fighting? Do you think it’s a better military strategy to try to fight Assad and ISIS at the same time, or is it better to tackle one with the help of the other and then re-assess the situation?

        Stalin was an ally in WW2 you know, are you saying we shouldn’t have fought the Nazi’s because Stalin was also?

        • “Are you unaware, or simply don’t care, that many of those “civilians” that Assad has been bombing for the last couple of years are in fact the very same ISIS barbarians we’re fighting? ”

          This is a patent falsehood.
          Did you make it up yourself, or was it spoon-fed to you?

  8. the absence of history is astounding;
    I pity the poor bastard who gave up their heart for Cheney. A heartless bastard that started the invasion into Iraq (WMD, mean anything to anybody? Paul?).
    Harper sat on the sidelines, wouldn’t commit yeh or nay until Liberals announced Canada wasn’t going to join the US in the Iraq invasion. Harper at the very moment of the decision became rabid in his support for the Iraq invasion..the one that displaced 5 million people and gave birth to ISIS. Harper shares in the shame and the lie that was Iraq and is now ISIS.
    The USA gave birth to all that is now in that region. Harper’s ruling Canada into joining the US lends legitimacy to the ongoing wholesale slaughter of innocents. The addition of a piddling amount of Canadian military participation in the Syrian invasion adds nothing but a disproportionate heap of shame upon Canada. Worse is the fact that Harper set his decision up with his well oiled propaganda machine, dispensing the politics of fear;
    he has the makings of an ancient tyrant.

    • What are you trying to say? Please explain. Thank you.

  9. FWIW: The policy should be framed as “containment”. Contain ISIS until the reasonable locals and factions on the ground can learn to get along and figure how how to cooperate in defeating ISIS.

    It took 50 years of patient containment to “defeat” the Soviet Union.

    We are mostly helping the Kurds. The Kurds will mostly be able to take care of themselves in a couple of years. It is a bit more complicated in the rest of Iraq, where the Sunni’s and Shia don’t trust each other at all, and Canada mostly is avoiding that.

  10. Wells has been assigned the ‘party politics’ angle (a delight to be sure). Okay, he but then throws in an off-handed comment in support of expanding the ‘mission’ to include participating in the Syrian civil war, essentially aligning us with Assad. It’d be nice to get hint sometime as to why, especially in light of: this likely being a pretty bad idea, the absence of any legal grounds, and Harper’s previous view that permission from Assad would be needed.

  11. “I won’t belabour the question of substance except to say I support extending the mission. In that, I seem to be pretty clearly in the majority.”

    And here we have the problem: What exactly is the mission you and the majority support? Airstrikes to protect civilians in Iraq? Training, but not combat, by ground troops? Support for whom? Kurdish Peshmerga fighters? Iraqi Shia soldiers? Iranian special forces (now leading the charge)?

    In Syria, which militant factions will we support — and which will we oppose? Will we fire upon, or fire in support of, Syrian forces? The al-Nusra Front?

    Harper has refused to detail ANY of this.

    In terms of Harper’s expansion not being in the national interest, not having a clear foreign policy framework, and lacking clear military objectives, Trudeau is correct — and public opinion is wrong.

    Remember Libya? Remember the majority supporting airstrikes there? Any mention of the failed state, overrun by militants and murderers, that we left in such a hurry?

    Nope, not from Steve. Or from our Twitter-obsessed media.

    • Remember Harper celebrated our “victory” in Libya and spent our tax dollars for that.
      Yes, in Libya there was brutal dictatorship but it was functional state with high standard of living, free education, free health care and no terrorists. What do we have there now after NATO military intervention – another failed state?
      The main reason that Gadhafi was overthrown and killed is; because he wanted to sell Libya oil and gas for gold dinars. He was also urging other producers in Africa to do the same, instead of selling oil for US $. Follow the money and you will have answers to many questions.

  12. How’d everything work out in Libya?

    Right …

  13. ISIS was formed and funded by the US and Saudi Arabia. Why should we get involved in another quagmire not of our making and likely, as some have mentioned, to make things worse in the region? Let those in the region fight their own scourge, while Canada helps on the humanitarian front. In this war, only winner will be Harper who, Bush-like, will use it to deflect attention from his corrupt and incompetent government. Trudeau was right in this case, and Wells is a fool who has learnt nothing from the West’s foolish escapades in the region for the last dozen years. I deplore Trudeau’s defense of the indefensible Bill C-51, but voting to keep us out of another war with ill-defined war with dubious objectives is the right thing to do.

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