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This article was published 9/10/2014 (2104 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
OTTAWA -- It may not be his wetsuit moment as a politician, but when Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau glibly suggested sending Canadian CF-18s to fight Islamist terrorists in Iraq was akin to men comparing the size of their manhood, he did nothing to help his case that he is ready to be the prime minister.
The remark, at the beginning of a week of debates about whether or not Canada should join a combat mission in Iraq against the Islamic State, was perhaps the best but not only example that Trudeau was ill-prepared and uncertain on a critical military decision.
"Why aren't we talking more about the kind of humanitarian aid that Canada can and must be engaged in, rather than, you know, trying to whip out our CF-18s and show them how big they are," Trudeau told a crowd at an Ottawa policy conference Oct. 2.
Dropping crude comparisons on an issue Trudeau himself claims is extremely serious walks right into the hands of the Conservatives who label him as just a ski bum masquerading as a leader thanks to his last name and good genetics.
For Trudeau, the difficulties extend beyond his opponents, however. He has been widely criticized in the supposedly Liberal-loving media for a wishy-washy position that was not articulated particularly well.
Even within his own party, there is a clear discord over his decision.
Some of his biggest supporters back his decision but are less enthusiastic about how he communicated it.
Others totally disagree.
MP Irwin Cotler abstained from the vote on the motion. Former leader Bob Rae and former Liberal senator Roméo Dallaire have both publicly backed the idea of Canadian military intervention against IS. Senior party statesman and former Liberal foreign affairs minister Lloyd Axworthy told the Free Press this week Trudeau's position was perplexing.
"I have no idea (why Trudeau didn't support the motion). I wish I did. I was surprised."
Axworthy isn't entirely happy with the plan Prime Minister Stephen Harper laid down because it is a tentative step, with an "artificial time limit," limited military interventions and little strategy on the humanitarian and diplomatic side.
"Military action is only one of the arrows in the quiver," Axworthy said. "It's not a one-note charlie. It's more like a symphony."
But Axworthy is equally unhappy his former caucus voted against the motion earlier this week.
Axworthy actively pushed for the United Nations to adopt the Responsibility to Protect principle (it was unanimously adopted by the UN in 2005). The principle says the international community has the responsibility to intervene in a sovereign state if that state is not doing enough, if anything, to protect its citizens from genocide, ethnic cleansing and other crimes against humanity.
Axworthy said the principle was an "essential part of our foreign policy" and should still be a sound basis for decision-making within the party.
In this case, as IS fighters are raping and pillaging their way across great swaths of Iraq and Syria, Axworthy said, there is a clear case for intervention by countries such as Canada.
A month ago, Trudeau seemed to agree, backing the sending of special forces advisers to help Iraq's military, and not ruling out the addition of airstrikes. Last week that all changed.
Maybe it was because former prime minister Jean Chrétien convinced Trudeau it was a bad idea, fearing the issue of mission creep and even likening it to the Vietnam War, which he said also started by sending advisers. Maybe it was, as Trudeau claims, because of a spirited debate within the Liberal caucus and a lack of information from Harper as to what exactly the plan was going to be.
The latter is a legitimate criticism considering last week Harper's own parliamentary secretary had to apologize for playing partisan games in the House of Commons instead of answering questions about Canada's military in Iraq.
But unlike the NDP, which has been against military intervention of any kind all along, the Liberals have been all over the map.
It's never clear how much a decision to go or not to go to war can help or hurt a political career. It's relatively rare that foreign policy issues have a huge impact at the ballot box. While recent polls suggest a plurality of Canadians backs military intervention right now, it's always a dicey proposition to stake one's political claims on something that can go downhill very quickly.
But for Trudeau, the question isn't really that he chose not to back the mission. It's that his flippant responses and back-and-forth positions give people already questioning his leadership skills a lot more reason to wonder.
Thus far, he has overcome such criticism, but after this week, it's not clear he always will.
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