Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau held a press conference Jan. 11 to address Iran’s admission that it accidentally shot down a commercial Ukrainian airliner, killing 176 people, including 57 Canadians. For me, the interesting part of Trudeau’s exchange with reporters was not only what he said, but what he didn’t say. He did not threaten Iran. He did not use words like “strike,” “target,” or “sanction.” He avoided any language that might escalate the already volatile situation in the region. In fact, he called for “de-escalation to ensure that there are no more tragic accidents.” Given the heightened potential for war between the United States and Iran and pressure from his own citizens, Trudeau’s performance was a model exercise in diplomacy and communication that Donald Trump should emulate.
Trudeau was firm in asserting that Iran take full responsibility for its action, but restrained in defining potential consequences for the tragedy. At the opening of his press conference, covered by CTV News & international media, the Prime Minister said he was “outraged and furious” for families that had lost loved ones due to a tragic incident that never should have happened. He vowed that Iran would be held accountable, but he did not imply a military response of any kind. Instead he linked accountability to a thorough investigation of the crash, justice for the victims, and compensation as well as closure for the victims’ families.
Many of the reporters’ questions focused on potential retribution against Iran. Trudeau expertly sidestepped those types of questions, focusing instead on the process by which decisions would be made. “We have convened a group of countries that have citizens who were killed in this terrible crash,” he said, “and we will be looking to answer questions [regarding] justice and accountability.” He added that during a phone conversation with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, Trudeau insisted that Canada be “fully involved” in the ongoing crash investigation. The New York Times reported that the downing of the plane has plunged the Iranian regime into its own “volatile political crisis” as international pressure mounts and thousands of Iranians protest.
During the press conference, Trudeau also remarked that the Iranian Canadian community — composed primarily of refugees who “have fled Iran” — “has contributed tremendously” to Canada. The admission that the regime caused the crash that killed their relatives is “a bitter pill indeed.” Trudeau concluded that the current focus and “very first step” of a larger process by the Canadian government should be support for the victims’ families. Ultimately, the larger issues of “accountability, justice, and closure” will be addressed. “There are many more steps to come,” he said.
Trudeau’s calm but firm demeanor could provide an interesting lesson in international diplomacy for Trump, obviously one that will never happen. But for the rest of us, it provides a vivid illustration of the contrasting approaches between Trump and the leader of our largest ally to the north. As a comprehensive New York Times report showed, Trump’s dangerously bellicose and impetuous approach to foreign relations brought us to the “brink of war” with another, more powerful adversary in the Middle East.
According to the Times report, the Trump administration had been exploring the possibility of killing Iranian General Suleimani for 18 months prior to his death. CIA Director Gina Haspel, and administration hawks Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and then National Security Adviser John Bolton were involved in the discussions. Ultimately, the death of Suleimani was presented to Trump as what some Pentagon officials considered to be the “most extreme option” on a list of several.
It’s important to note that Trump’s decision to assassinate Suleimani set in motion a series of events in which the tragic destruction of a commercial airliner and massive loss of life took place. The timing of the assassination also provided a convenient distraction from Trump’s impending impeachment trial in the Senate.
The administration has yet to come up with solid evidence of the “imminent” attack that supposedly justified the killing. Trump’s most recent assertion is that Suleimani “had been planning attacks on four U.S. embassies, a claim…at odds with intelligence assessments from senior officials in Trump’s administration,” the Post said. After Pompeo and other officials finally briefed Congress on Suleimani’s death, Democrats complained that they offered no detailed evidence to justify the risks of war involved in killing such a high-profile target. “‘What really came across was a sense of disdain and contempt for the legislative branch,’” said Gerald E. Connolly, Democrat of Virginia. “‘They didn’t even pretend to be engaged in information and consultation,’” the Times report said.
Meanwhile, Trump continues to use Twitter to bully and attack his opponents and conduct his foreign policy. In a recent Tweet he accused the Democrats of “defending the life” of Suleimani, when in fact the Democrats have been questioning Trump’s lack of strategy and evidence to justify an action that brought the US to the brink of war with Iran. In the same Tweet, Trump called the Democrats “unhinged.”
Despite Republican cheers over the death of Suleimani, the crisis with Iran is likely not yet over; this may be a temporary lull. Fortunately, there are models of national leadership in crisis, such as Justin Trudeau. These leaders demonstrate how a country can respond to an inevitable threat or an attack without greatly increasing the chances of war. When you compare these two approaches, which of these two leaders comes across as unhinged?