Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Hillier's power set a dangerous precedent

The adulation being lavished on Gen. Rick Hillier makes me glad he's stepping down as chief of defense staff.
That's no criticism of Hillier. He's obviously smart and astute. If I were in the Canadian Forces, certainly in a management role, I'd be sad to see him go.
Hillier had a vision for the military - the equipment, budget, support and public profile it should have.
He wanted Canada to be seen as, and act like, a significant international military force - "one of the big boys."
Like a good corporate guy or politician, he set out to get what he wanted.
And he was good at it. Pushing the politicians a bit sometimes, seeking allies others, charming the media, highly quotable and keeping regular soldiers front and centre. He knew how to cast the military and himself in the best light.
Hillier became a celebrity general, something almost unprecedented in Canada.
Politicians - especially ones like Stephen Harper who shared his desire for more military spending and foreign expeditions - welcomed the chance to share the spotlight with Hillier.
But they learned quickly that Hillier wasn't afraid to use his celebrity and popularity to advance his agenda, whether the government shared it or not.
When he was sworn in as chief of defence staff in February 2005, Hillier used the ceremony - attended by then prime minister Paul Martin - to criticize the Liberal government for neglecting the armed forces.
It was an early warning. Governments that didn't accept Hillier's priorities better watch it.
And they quickly learned that Hillier was adroit in capturing headlines and public support, and setting the agenda. More adroit than the politicians.
Four months later, while government and the public were grappling with what the Afghan mission should be, Hillier defined it.
Canadian Forces were going to fight "detestable murders and scumbags," he said. Their focus wasn't reconstruction or aid. "We are the Canadian Forces, and our job is to be able to kill people," he said.
Which on one level is true. We give our forces weapons so they can kill people when necessary.
On another level, Hillier was on shakier ground. The Canadian Forces job is - or should be - to fill the role that elected representatives set.
Hillier tended to elbow those elected representatives off to the side.
Don Martin, the fine Canwest News columnist, notes that even Canada's participation in the war in Afghanistan was partly Hillier's doing
"With carefully timed speeches and politically incorrect outbursts defending the needs of the soldier, Hillier dwarfed queasy voter opinion about the Afghanistan mission by focusing on strong public support for the military," Martin suggests.
The result of all this was that Hillier became more powerful, in some ways, than the defence ministers he supposedly served.
Whether it was a battle for bigger defence budgets or new arms spending or a power struggle with former defence minister Gordon O'Connor, Hillier emerged victorious.
But who should be setting the objectives for the military and making policy decisions? A career military manager with good political skills, or elected representatives?
O'Connor was a fumbling defence minister, but he was elected. No one has ever voted for Hillier.
The general is being given for a multibillion-dollar increase in military spending. New weapons programs have won quick approval thanks in part to Hillier's effective lobbying and political positioning.
His task was made easier because Canada was at war. What politician wants to be accused of depriving troops of needed equipment?
But that increases concerns about Hillier's role, particularly in steering Canada into an overseas conflict.
And again, it raises questions about what Canadians gave up - tax cuts, or improved health care - to fund the military spending Hillier so adroitly won.
"He didn't fear the politicians," Martin noted in a column on Hillier's departure. "They feared him."
Accurate, I suspect. And anytime politicians are afraid of generals who supposedly work for them, something has gone seriously wrong.
Footnote: Hillier's successes on behalf of the military raise another issue. Were the defence ministers he reported to unusually weak? Or has the increasing centralization of power in the Prime Minister's Office left all ministers with such a diminished role that they can be swept aside?


Anonymous said...

General Hillier didn't subvert the democratically-elected governments of Canada - he helped the governments effectively implement the decisions they'd already made. Canada had been committing the Armed Forces to a number of military missions around the world, but had not been providing the equipment or resources needed to do so in a sustained way (examples include Bosnia, Somalia, and Kosovo.) General Hillier merely spelled out what was needed to execute the missions from a military standpoint. The change in the Afghanistan mission to a combat role also made sense militarily. In 2005, Canadian troops had already been committed to Afghanistan for 2 years. It was apparent to a soldier that a combat role was necessary to create the security necessary for reconstruction. So, General Hillier recommended the combat role as a more effective course of action. The government still made the decisions about what they wanted the military to do - General Hillier made sure that those decisions weren't what accountants would call "unfunded liabilities."

As for your question about the weakness of defense ministers, consider that defense has placed as such a low priority on the Canadian political scene since the 1960s that we've effectively demoted defense to a junior-level cabinet position. The occupants usually have limited political influence, and with the exception of the unfortunate Gordon O'Connor, little or no knowledge of the military. Think about how that feels to members of the military. Perhaps something like how newspaper staffers felt when David Radler took over their newspapers...

Anonymous said...

The General sure has changed his spots since getting the top military job. Get rid of the tanks says the general and a couple of years later we buy tanks.Ships and aircraft are sort of a hindrance. When asked if we had enough troops to go south in afhganistan and still go to Dufur. (Recruiting is way up says Rick but really it isn't and a lot of folks are leaving the forces.) Sure no problem. a recent book " The unexpected War. Canada in Kandahar , by Janice Stein and Eugene Lang discusses the shifting ideas that ended us in a war that is unwinable , but we started as a reconstruction program. The Military follows instructions, they don't make policy, the elected folks do set policy. I can see him up as a candidate for the Cons pretty soon. Last general who went that route never even came close to being elected. Most Canadians don't really support sabre rattlers that much. Yes I was a career person in the Air Force but left long before the Newfie came along. DL

Anonymous said...

I am so tired of the either/or spending of taxpayers dollars. Taxes should be levied to cover all department needs. Canada needs a military and has a good one. The problem is ALL politicians in Ottawa. Name one piece of military equipment that has been purchased for our soldiers that haven't been run into the ground and obsolete. This policy has cost lives and not just in battle. Helicopters crash. Planes crash. Ships don't run. On and on. In '76 at the change of command parade in Lahr only two of the Centurian tanks made it to the reviewing stand. This was the equipment that was expected to halt the Soviet Bloc Armies? Canada had to 'borrow' Leopard tanks from Germany then and again for Afganistan. Peace dividend. Not bloody likely. Medicare, Education, Military funding cuts go straight to Corporate 'welfare' and tax cuts to those who already have too much. After all it is those who make the right donations that get the tax breaks and social programs don't contribute.