A Crisis in Canadian Civil-Military Relations

Who is to blame? Steve Saideman points fingers.
By: /
February 25, 2012
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People are usually quite eager to consider any utterance by any military officer as producing a crisis in civil-military relations.  The past year or two, we have seen more than a few opinion pieces worrying about the militarization of the Canadian public, whatever that means.  In a robust democracy like Canada’s, there is always some tension between the civilians and the military because they have different outlooks based on very different experiences.  It is to be expected that civilian officials will not look at things in the same way as those trained to engage in war.  No, a crisis exists when civilians or military personnel overstep the relatively clear if hard to describe bounds of appropriate behavior.  Such as when military personnel are asked to find information about opposition politicians and when the military goes ahead and does so.

The crisis du jour is that the Canadian Forces were apparently asked to protect Minister of Defence Peter MacKay after news broke about an inappropriate use of a search and rescue helicopter.  Once again, it is not the crime but the effort to ameliorate if not cover up the crime.  Getting a ride on a military helicopter is mildly controversial, but not a very big deal.  But getting the military to be involved in politics by seeking to find information about similar rides by opposition members is very much a big deal.  The former can almost be seen as a perk of higher office—questionable but not too problematic.  Relying on the military to rat out opposition politicians violates a cardinal tenet of civil-military relations in advanced democracies—the military is to stay out of disputes between politicians.

Yes, militaries do get involved in politics even in advanced democracies, mostly to protect their budgets, their preferred weapons systems, and their autonomy.  We see this now as military budgets contract in the U.K., U.S. and elsewhere.  This might violate some people’s ideas of what is acceptable, the reality is that this is considered normal behaviour.  Opposition research is not normal behaviour.  Far from it.

Who is responsible for this breach?  Both members of the Ministry who asked the military to do the research and the officers who agreed to do it, but the blame lies more on the civilian side in this one.  If the reports are accurate, the investigation was at the request of the civilians so they should feel the brunt of the new controversy.  The officers could have said no and almost certainly should have declined to investigate.  There is no obligation to follow an unlawful order, although it may have been unclear that doing some research was tantamount to violating the law.  The enthusiasm reported in the news story suggests that the Canadian Forces need to take a hard look at themselves—that supporting their Minister against the domestic opposition is not their role.  Supporting their Minister as he prepares to meet with Chinese, American, Dutch or Russian officials is their job.  There is a big bright shiny line between the two activities, and they need to remember not to cross it, even if the Defence Minister is facing criticism that they feel is unwarranted. 

Again, the crisis is not about Defence Minister stretching the rules to fly on a helicopter, but relying on the military to find information to undermine the opposition’s criticism of the minister.  The best way to insure accountability is to punish the civilians who asked the officers to go beyond their appropriate rule, and the officers involved should be admonished.

Photo courtesy Reuters.