The new Canadian role in the anti-ISIS coalition actually takes its roots from a decision taken 16 months ago when Justin Trudeau decided he could not align himself with Stephen Harper.
If Harper wanted to bomb Islamic State targets, then the Liberals didn’t want to do that. There was principle at play and internal Liberal debate, but with an election looming, a third party leader had to put as much daylight between him and an unpopular prime minister as possible.
So it is strange that Trudeau this week has adopted the language of Harper in promoting his broader anti-ISIS effort because that language could cause him even more trouble than it caused Harper.
When Harper announced his decision to commit six CF-18s and 69 advisers on the ground in northern Iraq, he told the House of Commons three times in one speech that the advisers were engaged in a “non-combat” role.
The parliamentary motion for the deployment explicitly ruled out a combat role for the Canadians.
But when it was learned our forces were trading fire with ISIS fighters, had advanced to the front lines in their training mission, and were laser-targeting bombing positions, the opposition pounced.
Harper said Canadians would of course defend themselves, return fire and kill the bad guys. He was proud of our soldiers.
Trudeau and his Liberals saw a political opening and led the charge against a prime minister they claimed had not told the truth when he called the mission “non-combat.”
He and his defence critic, Marc Garneau, demanded Harper “come clean” on an advise-and-assist mission that was clearly a combat mission.
Now, this week, the Liberals have announced they would continue the ground mission — in fact triple the number of the Canadians on the ground — and call it “advise and assist.’’ It is “non-combat.’’
“This is an advise-and-assist-and-equip mission that our trainers will be engaged in,’’ Trudeau said. “And I said many times throughout the campaign in my commitment to Canadians, this is a non-combat mission.’’
As part of this mission, just in December, Canadians repelled an ISIS offensive that included artillery fire, vehicle-borne explosive devices and ground troops.
Under Harper, 69 Canadians were on the ground. Under Trudeau that number will become 207.
That doesn’t necessarily mean the risk to Canadians is tripled, but it does mean it is harder to somehow label this as “non-combat” now than it was when Harper announced it in 2014.
It was left to the chief of defence staff, Gen. Jonathan Vance, to explain how the prime minister could call this a “non-combat” mission.
Vance thinks we in the media like to parse words, but some of us wonder why successive political leaders seem to think Canadians can’t handle straight talk about the nature of the mission.
Trudeau called it “non-combat,’’ but Vance said it is only a non-combat mission because Canadians are not the principal combatants. We are backing the principal combatants.
That sounds like parsing, but when pushed, the general was more direct.
“We will be in a region that’s contested and will suffer potentially the challenges that such a region offers,’’ said Vance, who agreed it was fair to assume risks will now increase for Canadians.
“It’s a dangerous place to work. We’re not in any way shying away from the fact there is risk.”
Trudeau has placed more Canadians at greater risk than Harper did.
This is not a criticism of the strategy, but a question regarding the messaging to Canadians who Trudeau keeps telling us he has heard from.
If there is a danger, political leaders should say so. There is no upside in downplaying or soft peddling a mission. It only creates unneeded political blowback when something, as it almost assuredly will, goes wrong.
The Harper mission was largely symbolic and the airstrikes were bloodless. But Canadians advising on the ground faced danger.
This Trudeau mission goes beyond symbolism, but is still being described as somehow antiseptic.
In opposing Harper that day in October 2014, Trudeau said Harper owed it to Canadians and soldiers to be clear on the mission.
“There is a clear line between non-combat and combat roles. It is much easier to cross that line than to cross back,’’ Trudeau said.
Sixteen months later, it is Trudeau who this time has muddied that line.
It wasn’t “non-combat’’ then and it certainly isn’t now.