July 2012 Commentary

Political Uses of the Canadian Forces 

by J. L. Granatstein

I don’t go to many cocktail parties, but I was required to attend one a few weeks ago. A distinguished and just retired Canadian diplomat drew me off to one side and asked with some seriousness if I thought the Harper government was deliberately using the Canadian military for political purposes.

That is an interesting question. When Stephen Harper came to power at the beginning of 2006, there can be no doubt that one of his government’s top priorities was to strengthen the Canadian Forces by increasing its budget and purchasing new equipment. Above all, Harper wanted to put more emphasis on the war in Afghanistan, to lengthen the duration of the commitment, and to provide all that the battle groups needed to carry out their tasks. And the government did what it promised, so much so that it can fairly be judged as the best government for the Canadian military since Louis St Laurent’s in the 1950s. It received praise from all those who support the military, and there was also substantial appreciation for the abandonment of the soft power rhetoric that had characterized past Liberal governments.

But nothing lasts forever. As I told my friend, I believed that the government  and the Prime Minister had come to see that the Afghan war was not a political winner. Doing well in Afghanistan mattered little to most Canadians when set against the relentless toll of casualties, body bags, and ramp ceremonies. There were few evident gains in Washington that could be directly attributed to Canada doing its duty abroad to the fullest and, while some of the smaller nations in NATO looked up to Ottawa in a way they had not before, that cut little ice in free trade talks with the Europeans.

Moreover, equipment for the CF cost the earth, especially with the accounting system used by the Department of National Defence that factored in the maintenance costs over the full life of the truck or C-17 transport or F35 fighter. A $65 million aircraft became a $130 million budget charge, a contract for a few handfuls of naval vessels became the largest outlay in Canadian history, and the billions mounted up rapidly, frightening the Finance minister, the Opposition, the editorial writers, and those of us who pay taxes. In a time of financial stringency when every department was taking a hit, the CF by 2011 turned out to be just another victim of the deficit fighters.

So, yes, Harper had used the military for his political purposes. But that effort had concluded, I said, and the Conservatives now seemed to be distancing themselves from the Canadian Forces and its problems as quickly as they could.  The F-35? It was the Chrétien government that got Canada into that mess. The Cyclone helicopters that were to replace the obsolete Sea Kings? The Grits again were to blame. That there was some reason to point the finger at a party that has now been out of power for six years didn’t make backing away look any more courageous.

But many of our governments and leaders have used the military for their own political ends. Mike Pearson earned the Nobel Peace Prize for his role in creating the UN Emergency Force in Suez in 1956, then became Liberal leader and Prime Minister on the strength of the kudos.  It took almost no time before John Diefenbaker predictably claimed that peacekeeping had really been his idea. Paul Martin, Sr., was instrumental in creating the UN force for Cyprus in 1964 and thought that if he received a Nobel Prize he too could become Prime Minister. Brian Mulroney put the national peacekeeping monument in Ottawa to demonstrate his commitment to the idea of Canada as a peacekeeping nation, and both he and Jean Chrétien almost broke the army by sending our then ill-equipped soldiers on every peacekeeping operation going in the 1990s. The Americans made war, we learned to say proudly, while Canada kept the peace. Who was using the military for political purposes then?

There are obvious differences between war and peacekeeping (though some current peace operations might really be characterized as wars), but there are surely similarities in the way politicians use the military to serve their own partisan purposes. The Grits hoped to portray Canada as different from the United States, and UN operations served their purpose. The Tories wanted to paint Canada as a good ally and a nation that would defend its sovereignty, and the war in Afghanistan and the Canada First Defence Strategy helped. Politicians will always employ the resources of the state to serve their purposes, and  the CF is simply another available tool.

J.L. Granatstein is a senior research fellow of the Canadian Defence and Foreign Affairs Institute.

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