Sunday, February 18, 2007

Showdown with Hillier and O'Connor

Showdown over military's direction rankles top general
Don Martin, CnWest News Service; February 17, 2007

A debilitating bout of double vision hit Canada's top soldier when he was handed new marching orders after last January's cabinet shuffle.

Chief of Defence Staff Rick Hillier looked down a long list of fresh government priorities on the revamped "mandate letter," costed out the demands in his head and told his political master it couldn't be done without a helluva lot more troops, or billions more dollars.

Hillier, you see, won't accept assignments he cannot deliver. But equally headstrong Defence Minister Gordon O'Connor won't take no for an answer. And that's why some sources insist there's a cold war raging atop Canada's military.

It's fair to say the two men don't get along personally. Big brass egos rarely do, particularly when there's history in their relationship.

Retired general O'Connor used to be Hillier's boss, but fell just short in his dream of reaching the top spot in the military's command. And there's understandable jealousy breaking out as the media-savvy Hillier attracts rock-star billing and his troops' adoration while crusty O'Connor delivers the equipment and gets written up as a belligerent blowhard.

Besides, Hillier is toying with a post-military career in politics, perhaps in his native Newfoundland and Labrador, where there's already giddy speculation swirling he'll eventually become the Rock's premier.

But Canada's at a critical point in balancing its defence obligations domestically and internationally that demands a clear and focused vision as a re-emerging military middle power. The last thing it needs is a five-star battle raging internally while a strategic plan is lacking.

So, how serious is the bad blood?

Well, sources say O'Connor has prohibited Hillier from talking to the Prime Minister's Office without his permission, something Liberals insist is a new way of doing business between supreme leaders.

By most accounts, there was a very acrimonious showdown last month when O'Connor rolled out a six-page attachment to the mandate letter that diverted soldiers to protect Arctic sovereignty and put them in position around a dozen cities as emergency responders.

It's a prohibitively costly exercise that will lay claim to thousands of already scarce troops who are needed on international fronts, particularly with the Taliban on the rise. The way some military brass see it, a domestic priority is admirable, but those soldiers just train for eventualities that may never come.

Still, O'Connor is adamant that his Canada First defence policy is critical and has infuriated the brass by demanding Hillier plan for the questionable deployment of a rapid-reaction battalion to Goose Bay, N.L., and the relocation of the Joint Task Force 2 to Trenton, Ont., which seems more to do with electioneering than legitimate military manoeuvres.

It all came to a head a few weeks ago when a top-level military meeting with Prime Minister Stephen Harper was scrubbed at the last minute because officials felt no consensus was possible.

Perhaps Hillier has cause to be confused. He keeps hearing the prime minister rattle Canada's sabre with talk of reasserting our place on a global scale, a view Hillier wholeheartedly supports, yet he keeps getting a domestic push from his minister.

To be fair, others close to the top insist the two men have patched things up. The minister's office acknowledges, in its usual not-for-attribution style, that Hillier had initially balked at the ambitious list of demands, but was pacified when he was promised the resources to deliver on both fronts.

That olive branch seemed to be on display Friday when Hillier went decidedly partisan in a speech to the Conference of Defence Associations, insisting the Conservatives have brought the military out from a "decade of darkness."

But Hillier's on-side words don't mask the looming showdown over insufficient budgets to stretch over divided priorities.

The rumbles from inside Finance are not encouraging. After the environment takes a hefty slice of the surplus, and billions more are diverted to Quebec and Ontario to resolve the fiscal imbalance, the military seems unlikely to be a windfall winner.

That sets up a showdown in a military trying to appease two politicians who could splinter the department into ineffective forces on both fronts.

Hillier sees the military as a growing international peacemaking force. O'Connor wants to put soldiers into Coast Guard and RCMP roles for national sovereignty and security.

Canada's military brass needs to see clearly into a focused and effective future. That won't happen if double vision, blinded by conflicting personalities, clouds the military's judgment.


Red Tory said...

Excellent post that provides some fresh insight on the situation. It should be interesting to see what's allocated in the budget for military expenditures.

audacious said...

i feel if we are going to start sinking a lot of dollars into our military; i would rather see more funding and a plan to protect our sovereignty over the Northwest Passage first.