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Does Canada Always Pay a Price for Piggyback Defence Operations?

Paul Bennett on “piggyback” defence operations, America’s War on Terror, and the risks to Canadian sovereignty.

By: /
13 August, 2013
By: Paul W. Bennett
Director of the Schoolhouse Consulting and Adjunct Professor of Education at Saint Mary’s University

‘Piggyback’ defence operations do carry certain risks. Conventional studies of Canada-U.S. military relations leave the distinct impression that cozying up to the Americans is a one way, downhill street to further compromising Canada’s national sovereignty. Piggy-backing on U.S. or American-led NATO ventures in the ‘War on Terror’ would seem to be the most recent example of the travails of a presumptive Middle Power operating within limits still defined by our North American neighbour, the American superpower. 

Two influential previous books, Michael Byers’ Canadian Armed Forces Under U.S. Command (2002) and Janice Stein and Eugene Lang’s The Unexpected War (2007), essentially reinforce and perpetuate the persistent image of Canada’s status as a de facto military satellite of Washington.If this popular view represents the new orthodoxy, it now faces a stiff challenge from a most unlikely source. Retired Commodore-turned-defence analyst Eric Lerhe has poured over the actual documents with a rare tenacity and come up with a decidedly different assessment. In his new book, At What Cost Sovereignty?, the 36-year veteran of the Canadian Navy delves deeply into six episodes in the early 2000s and concludes that, on the ground and at sea, Canadian sovereignty was never really compromised. 

Commodore Lerhe addresses the “highly polarized debate” over the inherent risks of what is termed “Canadian military interoperability” with the U.S.  Concentrating on the period from 2001 until 2006, he carefully dissects the Canadian role in six critical situations: the 9/11 attacks, the 2002 mission to the International Security Force in Kabul, Canada’s 2003 deployment to Kandahar, the decision to reject participation in the Iraq War, Canadian leadership in the Coalition Naval Task Force 151, and Canada’s 2005 return to Kandahar.  With the acuity of a military specialist and an unfailing eye for detail, he proceeds to weigh the “claims of lost or reduced sovereignty.”

Turning the previous critical claims into hypotheses, Lerhe adopts Stephen Krasner’s typology of sovereignty and isolates five situations where Canada’s external sovereignty might have been violated and two instances where internal sovereignty could have been breached.  Applying an ingenious framework for analyzing the identified Canada-U.S. issues and disputes, he tallies up the alleged losses and gains in sovereignty, citing (in each case) the most authoritative documentation. Contrary to Byers, and Stein/Lang, he concludes that “Canada’s military interoperability with the United States had little direct impact on Canadian sovereignty.”

In the six discrete cases, Lerhe found that Canada experienced “modest external sovereignty costs” but they were not the consequence of close joint military operations. They were, in his view, more the result of power imbalance and resource factors rendering us “dependent upon U.S. support.”  When it came to internal sovereignty costs, he drew a sharper line finding no actual examples of either “excessive U.S. influence” or “disloyal Canadian officials” in any of the military situations.

Lerhe’s meticulous research, conducted originally for his Dalhousie PhD thesis, is impressive, covering some 900 fully attributed original sources and another 12 confidential sources. He’s one of the first to use Wikileaks and does so very effectively.  The leaked documents are employed in pinning down how Canada was gradually excluded from the AUSCANUKUS intelligence exchange and in reevaluating a series of widely-held myths. He finds two other previous assertions unfounded – that Canada was deployed to Kandahar in 2005 because it was the only PRT left, and that rejecting the Iraq War and National Missile Defence exacted few if any consequences for Canada.

The volume, like most PhD theses turned into books, is at great pains to reference and recognize debts to scholarly mentors and previously ventured theories. He supports Frank Harvey’s contention that both Jean Chretien and Paul Martin professed disengagement from the U.S. intervention in Iraq, while privately assisting American efforts.  Successive Canadian governments are found to be practicing what David MacDonough termed the “goldilocks” grand strategy: a “sinuous path” that oscillates between full US. collaboration and maintaining  “a more arm’s length posture” that shored up claims to Canadian autonomy.  The decision in 2005 to go back to Kandahar, for example, is presented as “a side payment” at a time when the U.S. was expressing disappointment with Canada’s ambiguity, and to guard against possible “retributive” actions behind the scenes. 

His obvious debt to Dalhousie colleague Brian Bow is evident in his references to multiple examples of so-called “grudge retaliation” and the emphasis on President George W. Bush’s loss of interest in nurturing the continental relationship and the consequent weakening of military-bureaucratic links. The most significant finding in this context is that “issue linkage” was the key factor in Washington officials deciding to cut intelligence links in response to Canada’s decision to stay out of Iraq.

Departing from better known previous analyses, Commodore Lerhe contends that Canada can still say ‘no’ to U.S. military requests. For decades, he points out, Canadian governments, and notably from 1993 to 2005, have successfully resisted American appeals to boost defence budgets without overt U.S. retribution. At sea, he insists that Canadian naval officers have managed to exercise surprising autonomy, denying U.S. requests to detain al-Qaeda suspects without evidence, declining to escort commercial shipping carrying U.S. military supplies to Kuwait, and turning aside appeals to assist in intercepting fleeing Iraqis.  The only identifiable retaliation he found was the cancellation of a proposed visit by President Bush.  Although the Americans gave Canada increased command responsibilities, he claims that we were “astoundingly vulnerable” on the seas because of our lack of an overseas intelligence service or medical evacuation helicopters.

Eric Lerhe’s At What Cost Sovereignty? is a military expert’s book that deserves a wider audience.  He succeeds in his goal of “setting the record straight” with an insider’s look at a number of critical Canada-U.S. defence issues in the early 2000s. It presents credible counterarguments to previous political and military analyses inclined to perpetuate the rather “tired debates” over the independence of Canada’s foreign and defence policy. Critics promoting more ‘separation’ in defence operations are clearly shown to be flying in the face of practical realities.

Continued defence collaboration, at the operations level, is here to stay. It will remain so as long as Canada and its policy-makers remain committed to being engaged in international affairs, cost-conscious Canadian governments remain unwilling and unable to pay the full cost of maintaining a global presence, and defence authorities, in the absence of viable options, continue to see close collaboration as the only game in town.  Retired naval officer Eric Lerhe has rendered those practical lessons crystal clear.

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