New top general takes over with high hopes
by David Akin (feat. David Bercuson and Stephen Saideman)
July 18, 2015
Editor's note: This column is an edited version of a blog posted on David Akin's On The Hill.
OTTAWA - Canada has a new top general, Jonathan Vance, a soldier’s soldier who could be both a blessing and a curse for Prime Minister Stephen Harper.
“I think Harper may have chosen Vance as a lesson he learned—that picking a weak Chief of Defence Staff (CDS) means that more stuff ends up hitting the government,” said Stephen Saideman, a defence and foreign policy expert at Ottawa’s Carleton University. “With Vance, we are likely to see more clear, visible leadership, which might impact the Harper message management a bit but also prevents bad messaging much of the time.”
Saideman and other experts in and out of uniform I spoke to Friday as Vance took over from the outgoing CDS Tom Lawson, said the new top general is more media savvy than Lawson yet not as blunt as, say, Rick Hillier. And, Harper may soon learn, he’s no pushover.
Now, judging by the speeches at Friday’s change-of-command ceremony, one might think the number one issue facing the Canadian Armed Forces and its new general is sexual misconduct and harassment. It is not.
“It’s a very serious thing but it’s not the biggest thing the force has to deal with right now. The force is underfunded,” said David Bercuson, the University of Calgary academic who is one of Canada’s pre-eminent military historians and defence analysts.
“It’s pure and simple. We’re not spending enough on the military. Everybody knows it. We’re handicapping ourselves significantly at a very important time in terms of challenges to our security.”
UK Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron, in his government’s budget this spring, delayed eliminating the deficit by a year so that, among other things, he could boost defence spending to hit their NATO commitment of spending 2% of Gross Domestic Product on defence.
Canadian Conservatives would rather ignore that NATO commitment and continue to short our fighting men and women of the resources they need so they can hit an arbitrary balanced budget target in the belief that that will get them re-elected this fall.
Will poll-leading New Democrats promise to boost defence spending? Unlikely.
Perhaps worst of all for those who wear a uniform, voters may simply shrug and not even care to make this an election issue. It should be.
It is into this volatile political environment that Vance begins his new job Monday.
He will do so, insiders and experts tell me, with considerable support from those in the army, navy and air force.
“He will be a welcome change in the position as CDS and I feel we are once again in good hands. I think and hope he will bring us back on track as an organization with his strong leadership,” a current Canadian Forces member who served under Vance in combat in Afghanistan told me by e-mail.
Also by e-mail, a retired veteran of the Royal Canadian Regiment — where both Vance and his dad, Jack, served — told me he’s particularly popular with the infantry.
“He is, very much, as Shakespeare had it, ‘a warrior for the working day’ and that big smile is real and never more in evidence than when things are physically tough. He’s physically and morally strong.”
Lawson’s time at the top was, to be kind, undistinguished. But he did bring some peace to the ongoing fights between the North and South Towers at Departament of National Defence HQ in Ottawa, the homes, respectively of the the civilian and military sides of DND.
Vance, though, has what one expert told me was a “healthy skepticism” bordering on “aversion” to the civilian bureaucracy. And, like all his predecessors, the civilian-military relationship will be most tested on issues of procurement: We still need new fighter jets, new navy ships, new search-and-rescue planes, and .. well, the list goes on.
While Vance’s acknowledgement of the problem of sexual harassment and misconduct in the forces is vitally important — it’s crucial to his political masters — we must not forget his primary responsibility in this day and age is to prepare the Canadian Forces for combat — war — in situations as diverse as ISIL terrorists in Syria and Iraq to Russian-backed “rebels” in eastern Ukraine.
Vance must do both — oversee a culture change within the ranks while preparing them to fight and kill enemies — with diminishing financial resources.
“General Vance comes with a lot of hope,” the old soldier from the Royal Canadian Regiement told me. “Too much hope, I fear, for one man — no matter how strong — to carry.”