Justin Trudeau tries to find a place in the Iraq debate

The Liberal leader tries to setup himself and the Prime Minister

Justin Trudeau

“In the end,” he said, seemingly wanting to stick this line in everyone’s mind, “this all comes down to leadership.”

The man whose party currently leads the polls is still regulated to the sixth, seventh and eighth questions each afternoon. Thomas Mulcair gets the first five, and, if he’s feeling particularly inquisitive, questions nine through 15 as well. And on the Duffy-Wright affair and now on Iraq, with the NDP leader putting on his prosecutorial persona, Justin Trudeau has been most obviously relegated to a secondary role in the space of those 45 minutes.

For that, and possibly also for the simple political predicament of trying to find a happy medium between two tough-talking options, Trudeau has not quite been a prominent force this week as the debate over Iraq has taken shape. Stephen Harper is very willing to go to war. Mulcair is very skeptical. And that leaves Trudeau where?

A set-piece address this morning to the Canada 2020 convention, a thinkfest on the great challenges of the next five years, would be the Liberal leader’s chance to fill in that blank. And, later, a chance to make a dick joke.

The lead-up to that was a delicately calibrated attempt at setting up both Trudeau and the man he seeks to replace.

There was first a stressing of the problem: the “threat to regional and global security” posed by Islamic State, the “humanitarian crisis,” the “horrific” acts and the murders of innocent civilians, humanitarian workers and journalists.

And yet.

“But when we ask ourselves what Canada should do about it, a lot of tough questions arise,” Trudeau said.

The Liberal leader, his feathery hair slightly mussed, proceeded to recount the lead up to the Iraq war of 2003: the false pretences and flawed intelligence, but also “the overheated, moralistic rhetoric that obscured very real flaws in the strategy and the plan to implement it.”

Trudeau made a point of comparing Harper’s words this week with Harper’s words of 2003.

And yet.

“We know the Iraq fiasco haunts the choices we have to make today,” he said. “But we cannot make the wrong decision now because the wrong decision was made then.”

So what now then?

Whatever concern there might be for Trudeau’s position and handling of the matter—concern his opponents have been happy to raise—Trudeau was here keen to put the burden entirely on the Prime Minister. There was a list of things we did not know and a list of ways the Prime Minister has so far failed. There was a claim to how much more informed and multipartisan the discussion was in Britain.

It can feel a bit like the Prime Minister’s critics are grasping when they go looking to find fault—or perhaps that this mission, at least as compared to previous fights, is just less obviously controversial—but there might be something to be said for grasping. At least if it puts a certain level of demand on the government to explain itself. Is there a decent case for dropping bombs on Islamic State? Probably. Has the government handled that discussion as well as we might have hoped? Probably not quite. And not simply because it let Paul Calandra handle questions that one afternoon (although gosh that was a bad move).

On that note, Trudeau laid down four principles with which Liberals will approach the impending House debate.

“One: That Canada does have a role to play to confront humanitarian crises and security threats in the world.

“Two: That when a government considers deploying our men and women in uniform, there must be a clear mission overall and a clear role for Canada within that mission.

“Three: That the case for deploying our Forces must be made openly and transparently, based on clear and reliable, dispassionately presented facts.

“And four: That Canada’s role must reflect the broad scope of Canadian capabilities. And how best we can help.”

All of which looks and sounds basically good.

The appeal of Trudeau at this point does, of course, owe much to how he looks and sounds. It is not that he is bereft of substance, but that he particularly promises a certain style of leadership. That might be somewhat true of any opposition leader, but it might be particularly true of this one. (The NDP may spend the next several months laying out their ideas, but it’s not clear they can promise anything that will beat the idea of Trudeau.)

It doesn’t explain what Trudeau would want to do right now if he was Prime Minister—a question I heard whispered behind me later while the Liberal leader was handling reporters’ questions—but it makes a claim about how he’d do it. Which is perhaps no small thing if one of the primary concerns about the incumbent is how he does things. It co-opts all of the questions Tom Mulcair has been asking in the House and puts the question of seriousness back on Stephen Harper, without yet answering the question the Liberals will have to answer sometime next week: to support this mission or not.

There was an interesting tangent about what Canada might do to assist and strengthen Iraq’s nascent democracy. There was a curious line about how the Prime Minister seems to think the best Canada can offer is “a handful of aging war planes.” And then there was that dick joke. (Which will either gravely disappoint some voters or remind them that this guy is new and different: at this point, Canadians seem generally, perhaps surprisingly, willing to embrace him.)

In the question-and-answer session that produced that bit about whipping our planes out, the Liberal leader was asked about the simple politics of the situation, that which might simply force the Liberals to go one way or the other on the decision to bomb Iraq.

“In a room like this, it’s easy to say politics is politics and we have to do this,” Trudeau said. “And that’s one of the problems that happens in rooms like this, in the Ottawa bubble, we forget about Canadians. We think about tactical angles and how we might look to the press gallery or what our opponents might say about us. And that, quite frankly, has led Canadian politics to being in the position of having record levels of disenfranchised, disinterest, cynical voters. I’m sorry, leadership moments are not about making the easy decision that goes along with things. It’s about taking a stand on the values and the principles. And if there’s anything the Liberal party, I’m sure, have learned over the past years, it’s that Canadians need to know where to stand. And Canadians need to trust us.”

There’s nothing quite tangible to any of that. But the assembled crowd applauded the sentiment.

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