If O'Connor Goes Now, Do the Generals Win?

News reports are predicting that Defence Minister Gordon O’Connor will be shuffled out of the cabinet in the coming days. While many people have been calling for him to be removed, myself included, ironically the timing is very bad. The military (i.e. General Hillier) has been openly challenging O’Connor and the government on defence policy. Will this embolden the generals to keep on undermining Parliament by openly trying to influence Canadian policy – something that a military should never do in a democracy?

I think it is worth reading Eugene Lang’s op-ed from the Globe and Mail on this topic, reprinted below:

Commander in chief?

Hillier v. O’Connor: The confusion about who’s in command can’t continue

From Friday’s Globe and Mail

The Minister of National Defence, Gordon O’Connor, and the Chief of the Defence Staff, General Rick Hillier, are publicly at odds on at least three key files: the readiness of the Afghan National Army to replace the Canadian Forces in Kandahar in 2009, the appropriate level of funeral coverage for fallen soldiers, and whether Canada should establish “territorial defence units” across Canada. These issues fall into both the realms of military operations (the responsibility of the CDS) and defence policy (the purview of the minister). A public rift between the chief military officer and the civilian authority is unprecedented. It is also untenable. The disputes send mixed messages to Canadians, to Parliament, to our allies, to our enemies and to troops in the field. It is not clear who is in charge.

The confusion cannot be allowed to continue.

To be sure, previous defence ministers and chiefs of the defence staff have been on different sides of key issues. John McCallum, Jean Chrétien’s last defence minister, disagreed with the day’s chief of the defence staff on several files – notably on some major military procurements and the scope for eliminating inefficiencies in the Defence Department. Yet, not once did their disagreements spill over into the public domain. Paul Martin’s last defence minister, Bill Graham, saw eye to eye with Gen. Hillier on most issues. However, there were two or three occasions when the general’s public utterances, on the subjects of military funding and the nature of the Afghanistan mission, made life awkward for Mr. Graham and Mr. Martin. Not once, however, did this result in a public dispute or even an acrimonious exchange behind closed doors.

Had any of these tensions produced open divides between the minister and the CDS, their relationship, and those of their staffs, would have been compromised, to the detriment of the functioning of the defence portfolio. All parties understood this and conducted themselves accordingly. Disputes were sorted out behind closed doors, not unlike how a cabinet functions.

While public rows between military leaders and civilian authorities are rare in Canada, they are common in the United States, where senior generals often act like politicians, creating their own personas through the media. Gen. Hillier has embraced the American model. He speaks out bluntly and loudly on a wide range of issues. Indeed, Rick Hillier is better known than any CDS this country has ever had. He has a higher profile than virtually any member of Stephen Harper’s cabinet, and he is a superior communicator. Any defence minister would find it challenging to establish his or her dominance while standing next to the formidable and talented Gen. Hillier. But the serial missteps of Gordon O’Connor – particularly his failure to understand and communicate accurately the government’s policy on detainees taken in Afghanistan – has made his task of emerging from the Hillier shadow that much harder. Mr. O’Connor lacks the confidence of Parliament, the Canadian public and the military rank and file.

Gen. Hillier, at a minimum, retains the solid confidence of the latter, which is his main responsibility.

The two men are tripping over one another. Mr. O’Connor, a retired brigadier-general, is out of step with the military leadership on a key operational matter – the Afghan National Army’s readiness to replace the Canadian Forces in Kandahar. And Gen. Hillier, who was given unprecedented influence over defence policy in the Martin government, still treads heavily in that domain. The lines of authority between the minister and the CDS are blurred and conflicted. They need clarifying – fast. Many believe the Prime Minister can solve the problems in the defence portfolio by replacing Mr. O’Connor. That is a necessary, but probably insufficient, condition to get things back on track at this point.

The central objective must be nothing short of re-establishing competent civilian control over defence policy, oversight of the military, and effective ministerial communications with the public, all of which are woefully lacking.

Unfortunately, the Prime Minister’s failure to replace Mr. O’Connor earlier, when it was clear he was out of his depth, has resulted in these public contradictions between the general and the minister. This situation has made the Prime Minister’s challenge greater, and might put Gen. Hillier’s tenure at risk – which would undermine the military transformation agenda the general has spearheaded.

Given the public rift between the minister and the CDS, the dismissal of Mr. O’Connor at this late stage would be attributed to Gen. Hillier taking him on in public and winning. That perception would hamstring any incoming minister. The new minister would have, in the back of his or her mind, the fact that the CDS publicly challenged the minister – a retired general and author of the government’s defence platform – resulting in the minister’s dismissal. The subliminal message would be: “Hillier is in charge and getting offside the general is career limiting.”

These circumstances present a serious dilemma for the Prime Minister.

Eugene Lang was chief of staff to two Liberal defence ministers, 2002-2006

Tags: Afghanistan, Defence policy