Friday, 3 October 2014

A WARTIME PRIME MINISTER


It would appear that the government of Canada will recommend to parliament that it should authorize the use of military action against the forces of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, variously known as ISIL or ISIS. Given the Conservative party majority in the house it seems likely that this motion will pass even in the face of Liberal and NDP opposition.

Although it is widely believed that the Conservative government is in favour of an activist, if not to say interventionist, foreign agenda, this is not actually the case. Rather it would appear that the government, and the Prime Minister are being backed into this confrontation by forces, both internal and external, beyond their control.

Stephen Joseph Harper currently serves as the 22nd Prime Minister of Canada. Mr. Harper became prime minister after forming a minority government after the 2006 election. Harper won a stronger minority in the October 2008 federal election and in the May 2011 federal election, Harper's Conservative Party won a majority government.

When Harper first came to power it was widely feared, by those on the left, that he had a hidden agenda. Some believed that he had an unspoken desire to use legislation to change the ‘values’ of the country to more closely mirror his own. It was believed that as soon as he gained a majority that legislation concerning issues like capital punishment and abortion would be rammed through the legislature.

In the main these fears were never realized. While it is true that the Prime Ministers’ government has espoused and to a certain extent legislated, traditional conservative policies, there has been no particular extension of the ‘culture wars’ so common in the United States.

This does not mean that the Prime Minister does not have an agenda which he does not fully acknowledge. Mr. Harper follows in a long line of successful Canadian leaders who believe that the most important thing they can do for the country is to get re-elected and that anything that furthers this goal is self-evidently a good thing. It is a given that this drive to be re-elected means that nothing can or should be done which might alienate the majority of the voters at large or the party faithful, who are needed to fight the next election.

In the Venn diagram which describes Canadian politics there are spheres marked “far left” and “far right” in which there is a very small overlap which could be labeled “no foreign wars”. In theory both sides share a belief that it is in Canada’s best interests to never engage in foreign military adventures and could find common cause on the issue.

In reality of course no common cause can ever happen. There is no exchange of any kind between the two opposing camps and at least part of this mutual aversion is the fear of being seen to be acknowledging even the slightest amount of legitimacy in the positions of the other side

In fact, the left finds it easier to believe that the Prime Minister is telling the truth about his ambitions for the military and lying about the future of social programs even when his actions suggest the opposite. No matter how much he cuts the defence budget, it will all be seen as a plot to increase it, no matter how much federal transfers for health care are increased, the belief will be that somehow he plans to destroy universal health care.

The truth is that if the prime minister were to be judged by his actions, and not his words, a different picture of his willingness to go to war would emerge. Although the Prime Minister defends his government’s record on military spending and is quick to claim that he supports a strong military the numbers tell a different story.

While Canada had a defence budget of $16 billion in 2005, the year before the Conservatives came to power and the amount for last year was some $19 billion, the truth is that when adjusted for inflation to 2005 figures the figure for last year was actually about $16.1 billion. In other words, the current government spends roughly the same on Defence as the previous government, the one excoriated for a “decade of darkness”, the name given by former chief of defence staff Rick Hillier to describe the deep spending cuts imposed on the military by the government of former Prime Minister Jean Chr├ętien in the 1990s.

Elinor C. Sloan in her book “Security and Defence in the Terrorist Era” makes the point that while no responsibility is more fundamental to a federal government then providing for the security of citizens, the definition of security is open to interpretation.

In his seminal paper Redefining Security” author Richard H. Ullman has suggested that a national security threat can be described as “an action or sequence of events that (1) threatens drastically and over a relatively brief period of time to degrade the quality of life for the inhabitants of a nation or (2) threatens to significantly narrow the range of policy options available to the organizations within that state.”

Since the Second World War Canada has assumed that potential threats will come from overseas rather than from within its borders. “Security and Defence in the Terrorist Era” makes the point that in our post 9/11 age national security encompasses both domestic security, so-called homeland defence, which has both a military and civilian component and the more traditional forms of military involvement which uses force to shape the international security environment.

It is the balance between these two pillars of security that are at issue here. It can be argued that there has never been any ambiguity in the government’s priorities. It is called; after all, The Canada First Defence Strategy and it clearly states the roles and missions for the Canadian Forces. As the Conservative government sees it there are three roles for the Canadian Forces and they are, in descending order: defending Canada, defending North America in cooperation with the United States and last, contributing to international peace and security through foreign operations.

A Conservative Prime Minister who publicly suggested a policy of not participating in any international military events would quickly lose the support of the main stream of his party and some of the broad middle ground of the Canadian electorate at large. At the same time he would gain no support at all from the left which could never acknowledge this mutuality of interest or even entertain the suggestion that they might hold views similar to that of the prime minister.

It is this dynamic which informs the Prime Ministers decision to commit military forces in the current struggle with Islamic extremists in Iraq and Syria. The Prime Minister, contrary to popular leftist legend, has no great interest in becoming involved in foreign wars. However a refusal to accede to the U.S. request for more military aid in the Middle East would garner him no support at all from any elements of the political spectrum which oppose such actions and would only serve to lose support from the conservative elements of the electorate who espouse such actions.

The procurement and budget choices the government has made define their real priorities. Continued reductions in defence spending will have an impact on the quality of the forces that Canada can deploy in the future. The Canadian Armed Forces will soon no longer have the ability to operate effectively outside the domestic environment.

The handful of aircraft being committed to the fight against ISIIL will be unavailable in the near future if the government continues with its policy of not procuring new fighters. By the same token, the decision to withdraw destroyers and support ships without replacement means the Navy will no longer be able to effectively support Canadian foreign policy internationally. The Army, squeezed between declining budgets and a mandate to maintain numbers, is paying the cost in readiness, which in turn means they can not be deployed out of country in useful numbers.

The Prime Minister is being forced by events, polls, and domestic political considerations to become militarily involved in the Middle East. This is, at best, a short term engagement for a man who fundamentally rejects the idea of a robust military component to foreign policy and national security.


Playing soldiers: The coming boom in military spending

Federal Support to Provinces and Territories

Canadian military spending by the numbers

Security and Defence in the Terrorist Era
By Elinor C. Sloan

Redefining Security Author(s): Richard H. Ullman

Canada First Defence Strategy - Summary