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In Trudeau, Canadians seek to reclaim liberal stance on world stage

The prime minister-designate wasted no time in announcing a withdrawal from the US-led air campaign against the Islamic State. Trudeau's goal: a return to Canada as a humanitarian soft power.

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Justin Trudeau, Canada's prime minister designate, promised to withdraw Canadian forces from combat missions in Iraq and Syria at his first official news conference in Ottawa on Tuesday.

Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press via AP

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Canada’s Liberal government comes to power with a long list of progressive policies many Canadians are eager to see implemented, from legalizing marijuana to resettling more Syrian refugees.

On the world stage, Liberal leader Justin Trudeau, the 43-year-old son of former Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, has pledged to reassert Canada’s traditional position as a humanitarian soft power. He has wasted little time in signaling a shift in Canada’s foreign policy back to the left after a decisive victory Monday over his predecessor, Conservative leader Stephen Harper.

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On Tuesday, the prime minister-designate made the first step toward delivering on his promise to withdraw Canadian forces from combat missions in the fight against the Islamic State (IS) in Iraq and Syria. In a phone call to the White House, he told US President Barack Obama that Canada would remove its six fighter jets from the US-led bombing campaign, but maintain humanitarian aid and training, according to news reports.

"I want to say this to this country's friends around the world: Many of you have worried that Canada has lost its compassionate and constructive voice in the world over the past 10 years,” Mr. Trudeau said at a rally in Ottawa. “Well, I have a simple message for you on behalf of 35 million Canadians. We're back.”

Liberals won 184 of Parliament’s 338 seats in the election, giving Trudeau a commanding majority that will allow him to govern without relying on other parties. Such a victory also indicates a Canadian eagerness to repair what they see as the country's tarnished image overseas and to reclaim its liberal identity. They support peacekeeping missions over military intervention, closer cooperation with the United Nations, and less bellicose posturing abroad.

"Trudeau will return Canada to its traditional approach in foreign affairs which is characteristic of every single government but Harper's," Robert Bothwell, a professor at the University of Toronto, told the Associated Press. "Canada will go back to multilateralism, back to strong support for the United Nations."

Trudeau announced the removal of Canada’s jets from the campaign against IS during his first news conference as prime minister-designate on Tuesday. He said he would leave special forces in northern Iraq in a training role. Canada also has about 600 military support personnel based in Kuwait as part of the air campaign, according to The New York Times.

“I committed that we would continue to engage in a responsible way that understands Canada has a role to play in the fight against [IS],” he said at the press conference. He didn’t say when he’d withdraw Canadian fighter jets, only that it would be done in a “responsible” manner.

The Globe and Mail reports that politically, “Trudeau cannot completely backtrack on his controversial promise to pull out of the IS air strikes mission.”

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But his tone Tuesday suggested he’ll try to manage the political symbolism. The Obama administration will hope to ensure Canadian withdrawal from air strikes isn’t interpreted as a weakening of international support for the mission. 

Mr. Trudeau could choose to leave Canadian fighters in the mission for months, perhaps until the year-long mandate voted by Parliament runs out in March. Aides said decisions on the timelines are yet to be made.

The withdrawal could complicate Trudeau’s efforts to improve relations with the US, which had suffered under Mr. Harper. But he said Tuesday that Mr. Obama understood his commitment to end Canada’s involvement in the combat mission.

In another sign of Canada's move away for the hawkish policies pursued by Mr. Harper, Trudeau has pledged to cancel an order for 60 F-35 Joint Fighter jets from Lockheed Martin. If he follows through on the promise, Canada will lose the $150 million already invested in the F-35’s development and Lockheed Martin would lose what would have been billions of dollars in sales to the Royal Canadian Air Force, Fortune reports.