Justin Trudeau wasn't sure Friday night if the Paris terror attacks would change his policies. "It's too soon to jump to any conclusions," he said. By Saturday, aides said the attacks won't alter plans to bring in 25,000 Syrian refugees or to withdraw from air strikes on Islamic State. On Sunday, at the G20 summit in Turkey, Mr. Trudeau avoided reporters, except for one shouted query.
It was, in mere hours after chilling events, an understandable reaction. It really was too soon to draw conclusions. On Monday, a new prime minister is still coming to grips with how much his world has changed in the hours since Paris.
Suddenly there's a different test for this untested PM. Most leaders start out of their depth on foreign affairs – Stephen Harper was at first; so was Mr. Trudeau's father, Pierre. It was almost unfair that Justin Trudeau had to begin, as a green PM, with a string of major global summits. Now, less than two weeks on the job, add a crisis that underlines a real security threat and sparks emotional reaction, that carries big risks abroad and at home, and offers many ways to go wrong.
Until now, every step his young Liberal government has taken, every signal, has been about a change in direction. Many Canadians were embracing those clear symbols. Now, rushed by harsh reality, Mr. Trudeau's government must mix messages, too.
Think of how allies like France's President Francois Hollande, who declared war on Islamic State, will speak to a Canadian PM who plans to withdraw from air strikes. That's no minor matter when a close NATO ally feels under attack, and the world is moved to solidarity. Mr. Trudeau will this week meet U.S. President Barack Obama, leader of that coalition. His G20 host, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, wants to establish a secure corridor in Syria. Mr. Trudeau seems to be traveling in the opposite direction.
Politically, Mr. Trudeau cannot easily turn back on high-profile positions he took in the election campaign he just won. A leader who calls an about-face in a crisis just weeks into office is sure to spread the view his positions were ill-conceived in the first place. No wonder Liberals say plans to withdraw from air strikes and resettle refugees will go ahead. But it will be more complex now.
Mr. Trudeau's stance on air strikes was opposition positioning, a way to show voters that he was not as gung-ho about war as Mr. Harper. He never could explain it – he favoured sending troops to train Iraqi and Kurdish forces, but not six CF-18s to bomb.
His consolation now is there's room for interpretation. He could wait months, even until the current mission mandate ends in March, before calling the jets home. He could withdraw with one hand while committing to fighting Islamic State with another, beefing up ground-force training and military support. That might placate allies – Mr. Harper launched a training mission in Afghanistan when he withdrew combat troops.
The plan to bring in 25,000 refugees by year's end is a more potent symbol of change. The Liberals wanted to exhibit new compassion. They planned to make a virtue of the ambitious target despite suggestions it was logistically impossible. If they failed, they figured they'd get A for effort; if they succeeded, they'd show they had will that Mr. Harper's government lacked.
But that will be questioned anew. Reports that one Paris attacker had registered as a refugee in Greece have raised new qualms about ISIS infiltrators. Interim Conservative Leader Rona Ambrose quickly questioned the deadline: "Canadians are asking the question, 'Can we do it this quickly in a secure way?'" she said Saturday.
The Liberals can note it would be cruel to punish Syrian refugees who fled Islamic State because of the Paris attacks. They can note that leaving kids who fled the Assad regime to grow up in camps won't lessen extremism. On Sunday, Public Works Minister Ralph Goodale pointed out it's easier to conduct security checks on families selected for resettlement than on migrants arriving on your shores, as in Greece. But he conceded nothing's foolproof. Last week, the question was whether Mr. Trudeau's team could meet its political deadline; now the question is whether it should.
Mr. Trudeau can't just rely on the platform of change now. He had nine sunny days, and then a crisis changed the job.