Staples and Naqi op-ed: How will the NDP leadership race affect Canada’s military?

by Mahmud Naqi, Steven Staples

Published in Embassy online. March 21, 2012.

In times past, many in the military would have taken only a passing interest in an NDP leadership race.

But now, with the party second only to the Conservatives in Parliament, Canada’s military brass and defence lobby will be paying much closer attention to who will be the new leader of Canada’s official Opposition.

The Canadian government will face vital questions in the years to come about what to do with the enormous military machine that has been built in the decade since 9/11.

Should we continue buying the ships, aircraft, and combat vehicles set out in the four-year-old Canada First Defence Strategy? When will we deploy our military forces or keep them at home? And how much should we spend on national defence?

How will the NDP answer these questions?

Many defence watchers hope the NDP will be much clearer on national defence than it has been in the past.

For instance, the NDP opposed the invasion of Iraq and wanted troops withdrawn from Afghanistan, but voted twice in favour of the air war over Libya.

In the last federal election, the NDP pledged to review the F-35 stealth fighter program, but endorsed the Conservatives’ planned military spending increases that would pay for the F-35s and other combat-oriented equipment.

s the official Opposition, the NDP must have a comprehensive policy framework to address issues as they emerge. The next leader will play an important role in shaping the party’s new vision for the military. And there is a lot of work to be done.

What can we learn from the public statements of the NDP leadership candidates and the leadership debates?

Unfortunately, the leadership campaign has not held substantive discussions on foreign policy, despite the fact that questions from members touch on military issues frequently.

Five candidates have released statements on defence and foreign policy, and in general they agree that Canada’s military should re-focus on protecting Canadian sovereignty and on peacekeeping.

They also suggest that we should build on our expertise in providing relief and search and rescue efforts– as well as buying equipment suited for these tasks.

Many candidates have described the government’s plans to buy the F-35 stealth fighters as a misplaced priority; Peggy Nash, for example, contrasted the cost of the planes with the need to fund social programs such as health care.

But only Thomas Mulcair has emphasized the need to cancel plans to purchase the F-35 stealth fighters, and made it a clear, central part of his foreign policy statement.

Other than Paul Dewar, none of the candidates has clearly stated when Canada should intervene militarily in another country. Dewar, who has served as the party’s foreign affairs critic for many years, has been upfront in his support of peacekeeping missions abroad with United Nations endorsement.

He also supports the notion of a “responsibility to protect” which justified the war in Libya, a mission that was controversial among many NDP supporters. But Paul Dewar has come out as categorically opposed to war with Iran.

On defence spending, the candidates are quiet, despite the fact that this is the top question facing the federal government as it confronts a budget deficit and tough competition for scarce resources.

Military spending has nearly doubled in real terms since 9/11, and it consumes one out of four dollars the government spends on federal departments and agencies.

As the final convention day draws nearer, one pivotal question is taking shape: whether the new leader should move the party to the right, or not.

Ironically, the NDP’s policy does not differ dramatically from that of the Liberals on defence procurement decisions (like the F-35s), from the Conservatives on military spending, or from any party other than the Greens on the Libya mission.

Canadians will expect that, if the NDP truly is a “government in waiting,” the new leader will be prepared to address these crucial questions about the role of Canada’s military.

The answers will need to clearly articulate a defence policy that provides a real alternative to the government’s militaristic trend.

The next NDP leader must show that he or she is prepared to deal with the tough issues of managing the military’s rapacious financial appetite and dealing with the country’s powerful defence lobby, while preparing Canada’s military to successfully accomplish the roles and missions that Canadians want it to fulfill.

Steven Staples is the president of the Rideau Institute, an Ottawa-based research group that focuses on foreign and defence policy. Mahmud Naqi is an MA candidate at Carleton University’s Norman Paterson School of International Affairs.

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