The hawk’s dilemma

When the Conservatives cut military spending, what is the pro-military crowd to do? By Steve Saideman.

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1 October, 2014
Stephen Saideman
By: Stephen Saideman

Paterson Chair in International Affairs, Norman Paterson School of International Affairs

In today’s Globe and Mail, Jack Granatstein, one of Canada’s foremost military historians and big fan of the Canadian Forces, wrote that the Conservative’s treatment of the military is causing him to vote for someone else next time.

Harper has lost a hawk despite his rhetoric about defense, his celebration of the Royal past of the CF, the focus on the glorious War of 1812. Why? Because Canada is spending less today, after adjusting for inflation than when Harper came into power. Perhaps not every procurement project is a disaster – but pretty much all of the big ones. Each year, the government announces that it has not spent all of the money budgeted for the military since the procurement programs are behind… and by coincidence 😉 (winky face indicating wink) this makes it easier to reach a balanced budget.

My personal bugaboo has been the refusal to cut the size of the forces. If the dollars are going down, how about cutting personnel since they are a very big percentage of defence spending? No, Harper wants the numbers of personnel to stay the same so he can claim that he expanded the military. But if the personnel numbers do not go down, then cuts will have to come from elsewhere – operations (oops, mideast stuff is going to make this hard) and maintenance. Nobody here uses the American phrase “hollow force” but perhaps that is a matter of time.

Anyhow, the key reality is that Granatstein has no place else to go. When a right wing party cuts the military, what is a hawk to do? The New Democratic Party will certainly not run on spending more on defence, as it has to play to the pacifists in the party. The Liberals? They can try to re-claim the mantle of the adult foreign/defence party, but will have a hard time doing so as they have appeal to the left as much or more than the right. That is, if the Liberals are to win, they probably will have to take far more seats from the NDP than from the Conservatives.

And Harper knows this – that he can afford to take symbolic stances that are harmful to the military (keeping the size the same but cutting the budget) and defer and delay the procurement programs. Conservative voters are not likely to swing to the centre or left in search of more pro-military stances.

So, I feel for Granatstein and his dilemma. As a non-citizen (some day that will change), I have often been glad that I don’t have to choose among the Canadian parties – as I have not been a big fan of any of them during much of my time here. Then again, the American choices at the ballot box also suck quite often.

Lastly, this gets to one of the themes of the past month – policy relevance. Scholars may often be right about diagnosis and prognosis, but our prescriptions may not be appealing to those we want to influence. Harper almost certainly understands what he is doing is not good for the military or good for Canada, but it may get him re-elected. Ah, the joy of democracy – short term incentives win out.

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