Hillary Clinton gave one of those speeches designed to offend no one, but she still didn't help Justin Trudeau any. The Liberal Leader was sitting in the room when the former U.S. Secretary of State told an Ottawa audience that she believes military action against Islamic State is "critical."
That might have caused Mr. Trudeau a little unease for a moment, but what it symbolizes should be a little more politically unsettling. Over the next year, he can expect a lot of heavy-weight world leaders to endorse Prime Minister Stephen Harper's position – sending forces – and implicitly criticize the Liberal choice.
There's been a lot of talk about the political risks Mr. Harper has taken in joining airstrikes against Islamic State. But politically, Mr. Trudeau's opposition means he's hung his neck out further.
Of course, Ms. Clinton could be wrong about going to war in Iraq. She got it wrong once before, by her own admission, when, as a senator, she voted in favour of the Iraq war in 2003.
But what she represents in international politics is important. There will be dozens of national leaders and foreign ministers who will be arguing for the mission against Islamic State over the next 12 months, explaining their view on TV screens around the world.
There's Barack Obama, the president who ran on pulling U.S. troops out of Iraq, and who is more popular in Canada than the U.S. There's Ms. Clinton, a former Democratic Secretary of State, who looks like the front-runner for the presidency. Yesterday, she argued that Islamic State, unlike most extremist groups, has shown a commitment to expanding its activities outside its region, and therefore military action is necessary to prevent its advances, and buy time. Chances are we'll hear her repeatedly defend that position.
So when Mr. Harper announced that Canada is joining the U.S.-led coalition, he took a risk that the whole thing could go terribly awry. But he took that risk with dozens of Canada's closest friends, because many allies have done the same. Like Canada, Australia is sending six fighter jets, and so are Britain, the Netherlands, and Belgium. Denmark sent seven. There are plenty of allies in the same boat, each taking a limited risk on a small air mission. To many Canadians, that's comforting.
In fact, for Mr. Harper, the bigger political risk is that he might appear too gung-ho, too insensitive to concerns about getting dragged into a deeper quagmire. He's already taken some steps to limit those concerns by expressing the goal of the mission in modest terms – to prevent Islamic State's advances. He still has to work to prevent that perception, but he's got a political support base that tends to support deployments. And polls suggest that – so far – this one is popular.
The NDP's Thomas Mulcair has a political base that will probably support his opposition to the mission. But The Liberals have traditionally struggled with such questions because the line between interventionist and pacifist runs down the middle of the party. Jean Chrétien's opposed Canadian involvement in the first Gulf War, but stumbled repeatedly as he did so. In 2006, after losing power, the Liberals split on Afghanistan.
For Mr. Trudeau, the real political risk is that the issue undermines his persona. The Conservatives and NDP are already targeting him as unready for the PM's chair. His opposition to a Canadian military role will, by itself, turn off some folks, and win others. But more importantly, he has looked uncertain, and done a poor job of articulating his position. He seemed to argue for both sides along the way, while the NDP's Thomas Mulcair was more clearly against western intervention. It appears more like Mr. Trudeau chose his position to avoid ceding the role of opposing Mr. Harper to the NDP.
The Conservatives will try to exploit the appearance that the Liberal Leader was uncertain when the time for a decision came, and they'll hope to do so again and again. Mr. Trudeau hasn't really made such a clear argument against the mission that he can say 'I told you so' if western intervention goes badly. In fact, if it does go wrong, the signs might not be clear for years. And in the meantime, high-profile figures around the world, like Hillary Clinton, will be telling the public why something has to be done.