It was another year of blockbuster speeches at this year’s annual general meeting of the Conference of Defence Associations (CDA), held Feb. 23-24 at the Chateau Laurier in downtown Ottawa.
The CDA is an umbrella group of defence organizations, the largest of which is The Royal Canadian Legion.
The conference began with an early keynote speech by Ray Mabus, United States Secretary of the Navy, who spoke about “the broad challenge of making the globe we inhabit more secure.”
In many ways, what Mabus meant when he said “secure” was really “energy security,” which turned out to be somewhat of a theme at this year’s CDA conference. What energy security really means can be illuminated by an anecdote that Mabus told the audience: If oil goes up $1 a barrel, it costs the U.S. Navy about $30 million in additional fuel costs. When the Libya intervention started and oil went up by nearly $40 a barrel, it was a $1 billion dollar charge that had to be absorbed.
Security means stability, more or less, and so what Mabus was arguing is that security means good access to consistently priced oil. “It disturbs me that we are dependent on fossil fuels from volatile places on earth in order to move our fleet,” he said.
In order to accomplish this goal, the U.S. will be “de-emphasizing long-term stability operations” like the recent operations in Iraq and Afghanistan and focusing, instead, on supply lines and other such issues. If it needed to be wrapped up in a phrase, it could be this: after years of struggling to make the world safe for democracy, the U.S. has now turned to making the world safe for business.
It’s a shift of some radical importance. It is a sign of U.S. intention to start focusing more on their own welfare, their own situation, to turn away from the problems of others and start addressing their own.
Meanwhile, the next speaker up would definitely have argued that now is a very bad time for the U.S. to be moving away from idealistic foreign policy because, for Dr. Uzi Arad, former Israeli national security advisor, now is exactly the time when Iran must be confronted, perhaps even with force.
Arad, who made sure to note he was no longer part of the Israeli government and that nothing he said “could in any way” be seen to represent the government, was formerly an agent of the Mossad, Israel’s secretive intelligence service. Before going into his polemical—and sometimes a little shocking—speech outlining a strategy for dealing with Iran, Arad warmed up the crowd with a few jokes, telling of his days in the Mossad that he worked with the RCMP a long time ago, doing what “I do not recall,” he deadpans, to much laughter. “The common interest that we shared was working against the Soviets. Remember that?” More laughter. “And we were on the same side, which is something to remember.”
With little delay, Arad marched into a very serious discussion of the problems presented by an Iranian regime chasing nuclear technology.
“The fact is that Iran is slowly and gradually coming nearer the breakup point and it doesn’t really matter if that is measured in a month or a year, in historical terms,” Arad told the crowd. “The fact of the matter is that Iran is pursuing nuclear weapons and coming closer and closer to having that capacity. Furthermore, it is flaunting that capacity in the face of the international community.”
The Israelis, of course, have a very different view of the Iranian problem than most North Americans, as they are well within striking distance of Iranian weapons.
Arad went on to argue that precious time was lost because many were afraid to call a spade a spade and admit that Iran has military objectives to its nuclear program. “Those in the intelligence community have known this for years,” he said. “The point is that while the western alliance has been acting…it’s too little and too late—the test is still ahead.”
If nuclear weapons were allowed to proliferate in Iran and elsewhere, the Middle East would become “unlivable,” said Arad. “The place would be a nightmare.”
Arad was, at the very least, extremely clear in his position. “Iran should not be allowed to have” nuclear technology, he said, all of its energy needs could be met by other means.
Accordingly then, what remains is how to enforce this position on Iran. The United Nations has tried and failed; now it is time for something more.
“Sometimes to come to a non-violent end you have to show resoluteness and determination,” said Arad. “There needs to be a statement, a threat, that if all other measures fail, that there is a certainty of action. Such a threat would stand a good chance of bringing the Iranians to the table.”
It wouldn’t be like the war in Iraq and Afghanistan, Arad advised the crowd. It would just be a strike to take out the nuclear capability. It is doable. “The Israelis have a credible military capability and will use it,” he said.
The speech seemed to rouse many in the audience, not least of which was Dr. Roland Paris of the University of Ottawa, who appeared next onstage for a panel discussion on failed and failing states, but cast aside his prepared remarks to instead take issue with Arad’s fairly unequivocal call-to-arms. “I had planned on making some general remarks on the political situation in the Middle East and Africa,” said Paris. “But I have to say I was really taken by the presentation by Uzi Arad. I think it’s important enough to press pause. I’m concerned that what I heard was a prescription for pre-emptive war with Iran.
“I think if we’ve learned anything over the past decade, it’s the importance of stopping for a moment when one hears such arguments and putting them to the test,” said Paris. “There may come a time when we are at war with Iran. But I doubt that this is that time. And I doubt that it is in Israel’s interest to be at war with Iran. How do we know that such an attack would eliminate Iran’s nuclear capacity? How do we know that such an attack wouldn’t unleash greater instability? What happens the next day? That’s the conversation I want to hear.”
Paris went on to expand on his objections to Arad’s presentation before concluding: “I don’t think it’s in anyone’s interest to allow inflammatory tendentious language on either side to go unchallenged…I know it’s not in Canada’s interest to be raising temperatures and echoing the words of those who may be beating the drums for war.”
Throughout the rest of the panel—and the afternoon—the debate about Iran kept recurring. By the next morning however, when Defence Minister Peter MacKay took the stage, the focus was back on Canada.
MacKay’s speech was a basic overview of current and past Canadian operations, touching most notably on the recently ended combat mission in Kandahar.
“The Canadian Forces,” said MacKay, “have undergone a trial by fire in the last six years…they held the fort in Kandahar…few countries could or would do what Canada did [there].
“There are some bottom line results that you just can’t argue with—Kandahar is no longer an incubator of terrorism, the streets are bustling, education, health care, basic government services are more readily available. And perhaps most impressively, Afghan National Army and Afghan National Police are more professional.”
Following MacKay was a veritable phalanx of Canadian and allied military brass, including U.S. Central Command commander General James Mattis, Chief of the Defence Staff General Walter Natynczyk, Britain’s Chief of the Defence Staff General Sir David Richards, Royal Canadian Navy Commander Vice-Admiral Paul Maddison, Army commander Lieutenant-General Peter Devlin, Royal Canadian Air Force commander Lt.-Gen. André Deschamps among others, all of whom gave overviews of the state of their respective commands.
A fitting last note to the conference was the words of Gen. Mattis who, in reference to the situation in Iran, said: “Many times in my life I’ve found myself miserable on some hillside because someone’s vision of the future did not correspond with my reality…I would suggest that surprise is going to be a dominant characteristic of our future—and that makes us all a little bit humble.”