Over his first three months in power, Justin Trudeau has undone many of Stephen Harper’s policies but until this week, he had not cancelled one that enjoyed more popular support than the Liberal alternative.
On that score the imminent termination of Canada’s bombing mission against ISIS — also known as the Islamic State — in the Middle East is in a class of its own. It is also a decision that remains in search of a convincing rationale.
On Monday the prime minister implicitly admitted that the recall later this month of Canada’s six fighter jets from the aerial battlefield has more to do with aligning government policy with the Liberal election platform than with changing circumstances on the frontline of the war on Islamic extremists in Iraq and Syria.
Even as he was announcing the end of the country’s participation in the airstrikes, Trudeau still could not really explain why it was right for Canada to support the anti-ISIS war but wrong to contribute fighter jets to the battle.
On the contrary, he acknowledged that the air war still had a place in the strategy of the anti-ISIS international coalition. Canada — even as it is grounding its fighter jets — will continue to refuel its allies’ planes.
The number of planes to refuel has increased since Trudeau’s election victory. In the wake of the terrorist attacks on Paris, Great Britain decided to take part in airstrikes in Syria for the first time.
(As an aside, none of the above means the Conservative opposition is right to claim that Canada no longer has a meaningful role in the coalition. That would be news to Germany, a country that has recently undertaken to play a support-only mission along the same lines as those sketched out by the Liberals on Monday. )
In the matter of Canada’s role in the anti-ISIS coalition, no one will accuse Trudeau of having selected the path of least resistance.
In opposition, his contention that it was wrong for the Conservatives to join the airstrikes in Iraq and Syria was never very popular. It initially cost him support in voting intentions.
At the time, his stance ran counter to the opinions of some of his party’s brightest foreign policy minds. They tended to agree with Harper’s assessment that the only way to eradicate ISIS was to take the fight to the Middle East.
Since then, public support for the air strikes has remained solid. The shootings on Parliament Hill and in Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu, Que., the more recent attacks on Paris and the killing of six Canadians in Burkina Faso, have ensured that.
If there ever were a promise that Trudeau would likely to get a pass for breaking it’s this one. Reversing himself on Monday might have been less politically costly to the Liberals than staying the course on their campaign promise. Going forward, it may be harder to sustain support for the mission as they have redefined it than it was for the airstrikes.
For eclipsed by the recall of the fighter jets, is the fact that Canada is sticking with this war for the long haul. On Monday, Trudeau talked of an initial commitment of at least two years.
Over that period, more Canadian military advisers and trainers will be deployed in support of local troops. They will be within closer range of combat than the pilots who have been conducting the air raids. The risk of casualties will be higher.
Back when Harper initiated the ISIS mission, former prime minister Jean Chrétien cautioned that the sheer presence of 69 military advisers stood to put Canada on the slippery slope of taking part in a ground war in Iraq. The Liberal government is tripling that number.
As of now, Trudeau owns the ISIS mission in a way that Harper never did in the case of the Afghanistan.
Over the course of Canada’s decade-long participation in a ground war in that country, the Conservative prime minister enjoyed the support of the Liberals at every step of the way.
But when the House of Commons votes on the new terms of engagements Trudeau spelled out on Monday, the Liberal majority can count on no opposition support except, perhaps, that of Green Party leader Elizabeth May.