Analysis | Is Harper trying to increase Canada's military might?

Experts say that Thursday's celebration of Canadian Forces' contribution to the NATO mission in Libya is just the latest sign of Prime Minister Stephen Harper's .
Defence Minister Peter MacKay, in black, and Col. Jim Irvine, to Mackay's left, greet air crew in Greenwood, N.S., as they return from Operation Mobile, Canada's military mission in Libya on Nov. 5. Irvine is the base commander at Canadian Forces Base Greenwood. (Andrew Vaughan/Canadian Press)

The federal government paid tribute to its role in the Libya campaign Thursday with a flashy display of military might on Parliament Hill, a ceremony that some observers viewed as a way of declaring Canada's more muscular role on the global stage.

The celebratory event, which was attended by Prime Minister Stephen Harper, Defence Minister Peter MacKay as well as a host of military officials, included a flypast by CF-18 fighter jets, a 21-gun salute and the awarding of a Meritorious Service Cross (Military Division) to Lt.-Gen. Charles Bouchard, the Canadian air force general who commanded the NATO mission in Libya.

Some saw it as a conventional victory parade. "It is a celebration of sorts, there's no question, but it's within military tradition," said Michel Drapeau, a professor of military law at the University of Ottawa, who pointed to similar victory parades held in Canada for V-Day and the Korean War.

But others remarked on how out-of-character the ceremony seemed for a country that for decades has tended to play down its military. Stephen Clarkson, a University of Toronto professor with an expertise in Canadian foreign policy, views the ceremony as an exercise in "self-glorification."

Either way, the spectacle left little doubt that Harper is putting increased emphasis on the role of Canada's military in international affairs. 

The Harper government has expressed interest in acquiring more firepower in the form of U.S.-made F-35 stealth fighters, and is investing billions in new military ships.

What's more, not only did Canada play a significant part in Libya, in the past few weeks the prime minister has also suggested he would commit Canada to any potential Israeli-American action to take out nuclear bomb-making facilities in Iran.

'Militarist posture'

"[Harper] is certainly moving Canada into a more militarist posture globally," says Clarkson. "It's a neo-conservative view of politics, in which you leave the market to look after itself as much as possible and cut back the state to do its prime function, which has largely to do with security, both internal and external."

Michael Boire, a professor at the Royal Military College in Kingston, Ont., says that a more prominent Canadian military signals Harper's seriousness about protecting Canada's strategic interests, which include playing a heightened role in alliances like NATO and the United Nations and beefing up efforts to maintain Arctic sovereignty.

"To pursue one's interests isn't an act of aggression; it's not an act of bullying. It's common sense," said Boire.

According to Clarkson, another strategic interest for Canada is Israel. He said this explains Harper’s tough language regarding Iran, a country which on more than one occasion has threatened the obliteration of the Jewish state.

Drapeau said that by increasing Canada’s military presence, Harper may be trying to make up for the country’s previously lacklustre participation in alliances like NATO, Norad and the UN.

"As part of NATO, Canada has been accused — and I think rightly so — of not pulling its share, not spending as much as it should and not participating as robustly as it should," said Drapeau.

"Sometimes, your position or your strength and influence in world bodies depends on how many military missions you're prepared to take and how much risk you're prepared to take. In that sense, Canada's position has been elevated as a result of our contributions to both Afghanistan and Libya."

Evolving policy

It's worth remembering that Canada's most onerous military commitment, the 10-year action in Afghanistan, was initiated not by Harper, but by the previous Liberal government.

As Clarkson suggests, that may have been the result of wanting to placate the Americans after Canada sat out the Iraq war. He points out that the Canadian government went so far as to buy ad space in Washington subway stations to remind people in the American capital that Canada had "boots on the ground" in Afghanistan.

While the Harper government never said so explicitly, Clarkson feels that the Libya mission was a reflection of a policy championed by public intellectuals like Michael Ignatieff. Prior to becoming Liberal leader, Ignatieff wrote a report for the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty entitled Responsibility to Protect, which established a rationale for "humanitarian" interventions in places like Kosovo and Bosnia and, later, Afghanistan.

Boire says that as a result of its international reputation for fairness and reasonableness, Canada is uniquely positioned to play a vital role in major conflicts.

He says Libya was an example where Canada was "extremely useful" to Western interests. Having a Canadian, rather than an American or a Brit, oversee the military strategy in that North African country signaled that the intervention was not an imperialist adventure but a broadly supported international mission.

Clarkson bemoans the fact that Canadian veterans of the Afghanistan mission have not been feted in the same way as colleagues who participated in the Libya operation. He attributes it to the dubious success of the Afghan campaign, which he believes has done little to promote democracy in that country. He also highlights the fact that Canada suffered a disproportionately high number of casualties compared to its American and British allies.

Drapeau suggested that because Canada still has a training role in Afghanistan, it would be inappropriate to hold a ceremony now.

"It’s premature to have a parade and put a close to [the Afghan mission] while we have men and women still serving in perilous conditions in Afghanistan."

[IMAGEGALLERY galleryid=1490 size= large]