Saturday, June 05, 2004

Harper's big defence plans a reminder of his Iraq war eagerness

VICTORIA - I'm guessing Conservative leader Stephen Harper is badly out of step with most Canadians on defence spending - just as he was when he wanted to join the war on Iraq.
Harper wants to increase military spending by 10 per cent immediately, an extra $1.2 billion a year.
Over time a Conservative government would increase military spending by $8 billion a year, he says, a 67-per-cent jump. We'd hire more soldiers, pushing the ranks from the current 52,000 to 80,000, and sink money into new equipment.
Canadians should ensure that the military has the resources to do the work that we ask them to do. That has not always been true, and it's wrong to send people off on potentially dangerous missions with outdated equipment.
But Canada spends $12 billion a year on its armed forces - about $400 per capita. And despite the efforts of a strong defence lobby, most polls show that Canadians think the spending priority should be health care or other programs to improve our quality of life.
It's easy to pluck statistics from the air to prove that Canada spends too little, or too much, on the military. Most comparable countries spend a significantly larger share of their GDP on their military. And Liberal governments did sharply reduce military spending through the '90s to elminate the deficit.
But Canada still ranks 16th on a list of 160 countries around the world in defence spending. We're 11th out of 19 in spending among NATO countries. The number of troops puts us in the top third of European and North American countries.
For an alleged fiscal conservative, Mr. Harper's posiiton is surprising.
Because surely before we introduce massive military spending increase, we need to decide what we want our military to do.
The current mission includes three tasks - protecting Canada, defending North America in co-operation with the U.S. and contributing to peace and international security.
Protecting Canada - and North America - against who, exactly? There's no evidence of any conventional military threats (and despite the fears, there's also little evidence of any real terrorist threats).
And there is even less evidence that the best way to deal with the threats of the new century is by increasing the number of conventional troops, or spending billions on arms programs - like the Navy's $10-billion frigates - that appear firmly aimed at the issues of the past.
It's laudable that the military has a goal of contributing to peace and international security.
But what is the best way of accomplishing that goal? Today we have fewer than 4,000 troops overseas - 2,200 in Afghanistan, 200 in the Mideast, 500 in Haiti, 655 in Bosnia-Herzegovina. It's difficult, dangerous work. It is also a small component of what Canada's military does, and one that could be handled within the current budget. (Or certainly without a 67-per-cent increase.)
And perhaps an extra $8 billion a year could be used much more effectively to build peace and security. Supporting health care in struggling countries, or providing assistance in developing an economic infrastructure and effective market economy might be much more effective. (Accepting the reality that sometimes people with guns are the only thing standing between chaos and security.)
It all seems very risky political ground for Mr. Harper, who is the only leader proposing major military spending increases.
For he is also the only leader who - based on his statements at the time - would have sent Canadian troops to join the war on Iraq. Mr. Harper placed a priority on standing with the U.S., even without UN support for an invasion, and believed the claims of imminent risk from weapons of mass destruction.
If he had been prime minister, Canadian troops would now be in Iraq. Some would already have died.
In a campign where the parties have much in common, that's a defining difference.
And it is likely one that many Canadians will remember as they assess the parties' position on the role - and cost - of the military.
- From the Vancouver Sun, June 5

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