Eye On Defence: Changed Thinking On The Military

July 1, 2006 by David J. Bercuson

PHOTO: ADAM DAY

PHOTO: ADAM DAY

Captain Sam Perreault, a CF reservist deployed in Sudan, discusses troop movements near Juba with an officer of the Sudan People’s Liberation Army.

It wasn’t long after the election of Jan. 23 before a number of differences emerged between the military and defence postures of Paul Martin’s and Stephen Harper’s governments.

For one thing, Prime Minister Harper’s first trip abroad was to Afghanistan and Pakistan, with the high point coming in a two-day visit to the Canadians serving in Kandahar, an overnight stay at Kandahar airfield, and a commitment to the troops that Canada wouldn’t cut and run from there when the going got tough.

For another, the speech from the throne reiterated the new government’s commitment to rebuild the military as an effective instrument of Canadian foreign policy. Not only that, but in the second week of April, the prime minister even took time from a very busy schedule to attend the graduation of military students training at a course in Canadian Forces Base Wainwright, Alta.

From the date of his election, through the throne speech, to the first Tory budget, Harper reiterated his focus on five domestic priorities: accountability; a goods-and-service-tax cut; guaranteed health care waiting times; a new child care scheme to replace the Liberal scheme; and tougher crime legislation. But, in effect, building a strong and effective Canadian Forces seems almost as high a priority for the new government as the other five.

Even so, the most significant difference between the old Liberal and the new Tory governments actually emerged during a visit by Minister of National Defence Gordon O’Connor to CFB Petawawa, Ont., on April 13. There O’Connor announced that Canada would not be taking on any new overseas missions. Canadians would stay in Afghanistan for now, as a matter of choice, but the emphasis over the near term would be to build the Forces up. That could not be done effectively or quickly, O’Connor stressed, if any new commitments to places such as Darfur, in Sudan, were undertaken.

Contrast O’Connor’s stance on a possible Darfur mission to that of the previous government. Last spring Paul Martin suddenly announced that in light of the tragedy unfolding in western Sudan, Canada would send a hundred or more troops to the region.

Martin made the announcement without any consultation with the African Union, without any arrangement with Sudan (which would hardly agree to any such intervention anyway), and without consulting any of Canada’s traditional Allies, especially the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. No one knew what the Canadians would do when they got there, if they got there, how they would protect themselves in a vicious civil war (let alone protect anyone else), or how they might be sustained.

Even more to the point, the Liberal government had only weeks before issued a new International Policy Statement which had loudly proclaimed that such piecemeal missions, undertaken by small contingents of Canadian soldiers, were to be a thing of the past. The statement proclaimed that since Canada’s military was first and foremost an instrument of Canadian foreign policy (at least in its offshore roles), future Canadian military interventions would be large enough to buy Canada influence and protect Canadian interests wherever they were deployed.

It wasn’t long before Martin’s mission collapsed at some significant embarrassment to Canada. Instead of troops Canada sent the African Union some refurbished armoured vehicles. The tragedy in Darfur, of course, goes on.

The difference between the approaches of the two governments was like night from day.

By the spring of 2005 the Martin Liberals were admittedly beginning to realize that Canada had to stop preaching that the world would be a better place if only Canadian values became internationalized, and had to begin to restore the diplomatic service, the military and Canadian aid. They promised more military spending in the budget. They began to speak about the need to assert and protect Canadian national interests as much as they preached about values. But when push came to shove–as it seems to have with Martin over Darfur–Canadian interests were ignored and hand-wringing prevailed.

This year, there was a steely cold logic to O’Connor’s position. Barring extreme emergencies (not said by the minister but certainly implicit), and the current Kandahar mission, Canada’s military is staying home and building its strength.

Darfur is a tragedy. There is strong evidence of genocidal intent in the fighting there. But Canada is a small country with a very limited military capacity, due largely to the Liberal gutting of the Forces in the early 1990s. And Canada will never be able to have any impact on Darfur acting alone. Besides, it might be harsh to ask, but does Canada have any direct interests there? Canadians would most assuredly like to help, but what real difference will it make to Canada? There are many battles that need to be fought in the world, but we cannot participate in very many of them.

Canadian governments have to be very careful when deciding where and when to deploy forces. If the Tories have the time and the resources to build the modern, far-reaching, 100,000-person Canadian Forces (regular and reservists) that Harper has promised and which a G8 member such as Canada ought to have, the government will have much greater leeway as to where and when forces can be deployed.

But that’s for the future. Those who know how long that might take, know that such an eventuality is years away, perhaps as long as a decade. And thus our deployments in the near future have to be determined both by what is causing offence to our values, and a danger to our national interests. To use an old Russian proverb, we’ll need to shoot the wolf that is closest to the sleigh because we can’t shoot them all. The Tories appear to know that; the Liberals didn’t.

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