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Did Trudeau reject a Liberal combat plan?

Canada Goes to War. Yep, that's how the hyperbole of the headlines have it. That's how some are heatedly framing our limited air-sorties contribution in support of a U.S.-dominated coalition against Islamic State horrors. We're committing a half-dozen CF-18s. In addition there's a couple of surveillance craft and, don't forget, a refuelling plane as well.

Our going off to war does not include sending ground troops. The mission is scheduled to last just six months. Our air strikes will come at minimal risk to our servicemen since the enemy is not outfitted with sophisticated anti-aircraft systems to shoot down our planes, which are equipped with anti-missile systems.

In the past, Canada has made fighter craft contributions to conflicts – the NATO campaign against the Serbs in 1999 being one example. Back then we were spared the hype about a country marching off to war. It was seen in perspective. Not this time.

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Strange though, as small as this support mission is, that the Liberals and the NDP still can't bring themselves to support it. Someone should tell them that in Canadian terms it isn't another Afghanistan or that it bears no resemblance to the folly of the Iraq invasion of 2003 supported by Stephen Harper. It's spearheaded by a U.S. President of a liberal bent who is popular here and who is a leader of caution.

But even before Mr. Harper had specified his limited assistance plan, Justin Trudeau was retreating from any role except humanitarian support. He gave a speech last week that actually made a well-reasoned case for staying away from making a big war commitment. But Mr. Harper isn't making such a commitment.

Rather than jumping in with both feet, he is offering a middle course on this conflict, an approach which, viewing the tradition of the Liberal Party, is much in keeping. Mr. Harper can be faulted for shamelessly trying to play the fear card in suggesting there is a direct threat to Canada from Islamic State. But in terms of our role, he is doing what I suspect many past Liberal prime ministers would have been comfortable in doing.

As such, Mr. Trudeau may well end up regretting his decision. Former Liberal stalwarts like Lloyd Axworthy and Ujjal Dosanjh have already come out in disagreement with him. There is concern in many quarters that the young leader is not ready for the big stage. That view will likely find more adherents now.

In the case of Thomas Mulcair, giving his party's assent to the allied effort would have showcased some new thinking on the part of the NDP, revealing a party that is not forever locked into a peacenik posture. His base is Quebec, of course and, Quebec, going all the way back to the Boer War, has lined up forcibly against war more than any other Canadian province. Mr. Mulcair surely has that in mind. But it is not all that certain that in the face of the Islamic butchers Quebeckers will maintain that stance.

The opposition leaders are right to doubt the likelihood of success of an air campaign without ground support. They are right to raise contradictions such as not taking the fight to Syria. They are right if they suggest Canada's participation in the coalition might place the country higher on a terrorist hit list than we otherwise would have been. But Mr. Harper is correct when he says it's never been the Canadian way to leave the tough going to others.

Mr. Trudeau suspects the PM is playing for political gain. Given the abject cynicism of the Harper record in reducing most every issue to political calculation, there may be good reason for that suspicion, even though his aggressive grandstanding with respect to the Ukraine and the Middle East has only seen his party slide further in the polls.

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The Liberal leader wants to frame Mr. Harper as a dangerous hawk. Mr. Harper wants to frame him as a naive soft-power practitioner. Given their positions in this particular conflict, the Prime Minister stands the better chance of making headway in the framing game.

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