Feature

Too Few Hilliers

The general goes where Ottawa mandarins fear to tread

Ilustration by Gary Taxali

Canada’s controversial mission in Afghanistan has sparked a public debate on what our role in the world should be. But bubbling just beneath the surface is a second, quite new, conversation: “Who makes defence and foreign policy in this country,” attentive observers have begun to ask, “the government or the military? ” At the centre of this brewing storm is General Rick Hillier, and as Toronto Star columnist James Travers put it: “Debate swirls over whether or not he criss-crosses the line that traditionally separates senior public servants from elected public figures… [and] the consensus is that Hillier is now way above the parapet most bureaucrats are comfortable staying below.”

Appointed by Prime Minister Paul Martin in early 2005 as chief of the defence staff (cds), Hillier is intelligent, strategic, honest, and charismatic, and he does something many Ottawa mandarins and politicians would rather he not do—talk directly to Canadians. Moreover, he is good at it, perhaps exceptionally so. Hillier has become a household name, a rarity for a Canadian military officer, and is the public face of Canada’s mission in Afghanistan and its most articulate and compelling spokesperson. Perhaps most tellingly, as an unabashed champion of Canada’s men and women in uniform, he has almost single-handedly re-established the image of the Canadian Forces (CF) as a premier national institution.

Even before he became cds, Hillier’s leadership style rippled through the CF. In early 2003, Defence Minister John McCallum was lobbying hard for increases to the defence budget. After years of cutbacks and downsizing under Prime Minister Chrétien and Finance Minister Martin, new funding for the military finally appeared to be on the horizon. Eight hundred soldiers had been deployed to Kandahar in 2002, and the CF were preparing to deploy a larger force to Kabul in 2003. After 9/11, the military was becoming an important instrument of foreign policy, and rebuilding it was a priority. Then, as budget day approached, something unusual happened at National Defence Headquarters (ndhq)—the nerve centre of the defence establishment. Lieutenant-General Hillier, then the newly appointed assistant chief of land staff, wrote a confidential memo to his boss, cds Ray Henault. It was leaked, found its way into the national media, and caused a firestorm inside the cloistered confines of Canada’s senior officer class.

Traditionally, the army, navy, and air force shared cuts and rare budget increases roughly equally. To Hillier, this balance deprived Canada’s military of strategic focus, and he would try to break the pattern. His memo argued strenuously that the army be placed at the centre of Canada’s defence policy. Boots on the ground, Hillier insisted, represented the key contribution Canada could make to international peace and security operations in the post–Cold War period, and would give Canada influence and leverage in Washington, at the UN, and in nato. Soldiers were in terribly short supply in all the world’s trouble spots—from Afghanistan to Haiti to Africa—and would remain so well into the future. Through his unvarnished and determined advocacy, Hillier had unwittingly declared war on his colleagues in the navy and air force. During a meeting hastily convened by the cds and deputy minister to re-establish inter-service civility and collegiality, the yelling could be heard down the long hallway outside.

This exercise in budget lobbying was Hillier’s first foray into the bureaucratic decision-making and internecine politics at ndhq. Although his memo failed to convince Henault of the need for an asymmetric allocation of resources, it did underline Hillier’s style. He was a leader with vision and focus, fully prepared to challenge conventional thinking and discard traditions. These qualities have now raised the badly misunderstood issue of “civilian control of the military.” Hillier represents a model of military leadership more akin to that of the US or Britain, but has he overstepped by inappropriately treading on the domain of elected leaders, Americanizing the leadership of the CF, and militarizing Canadian society?

“In public, civil servants are like children: they should be seen but not heard,” a senior bureaucrat told us, echoing the visceral discomfort many civil servants express about Hillier’s public profile. Although there is no legal prohibition against the cds having a strong public presence, senior public servants invoke decorum, tradition, Canadian restraint, and deference to Parliament as arguments critical of Hillier’s approach. If Hillier makes official Ottawa’s skin crawl, the grumbling is as much about breaking cultural taboos as it is about politics.

To some extent, Hillier’s heightened visibility is a consequence of the CF being at war for the first time in decades. Under such circumstances, the military leadership has a duty to keep the public informed about operations, whether in Kandahar or the Balkans. Few would quarrel with this, and Hillier’s predecessors regularly complied. But Hillier has taken it a step further. In late 2007, for instance, he contradicted Prime Minister Harper about a military estimate, and he did so publicly. Harper had declared that Canada would be able to withdraw from Kandahar in 2011, because the Afghan National Army (ana) would be trained and ready in sufficient numbers to take over. A few days later, when asked about this during a visit to Kandahar, Hillier did not mince his words: training the ana would take at least ten years, he said. No doubt Hillier is correct—military experts know that to get the job done Canada’s engagement in Afghanistan will have to be long term—but his comments provoked allegations that the military leadership was out of control. If Hillier had reservations, a former minister of defence argued, he should express them in private.

Unpacking this contretemps is instructive. Hillier did exactly what a responsible military leader is supposed to do: provide his best estimate of operational conditions. History suggests that when generals fail to speak out, when they are reluctant to express reservations about the feasibility or progress of military operations, policy often goes badly off the rails. Much of what has gone wrong in Iraq, for example, dates back to the (unusual) unwillingness or inability of senior military leaders in Washington to make known their anxiety about the effectiveness of existing plans—in a forceful, timely, and, if necessary, public way. Speaking truth to power is one of the most fundamental responsibilities of a cds.

It is not Hillier’s record of speaking his mind that worries seasoned observers; it is that he does so in public. Veteran politicians bristle at the thought of being publicly contradicted by an unelected appointee, especially on an issue as sensitive as Canada’s war in Afghanistan. And the subtext of Hillier’s comment was lost on no one: Don’t play politics with military operations, and tell Canadians the truth or I will. While that message is certainly not appreciated in the halls of power, the cds has privileged access to information and is expert at interpreting it, and the reluctance to allow Canada’s senior military officer to disclose critical judgments denies the public access to vital information and knowledge. At a time when concerns about a “democratic deficit” have rarely been higher, keeping military leaders on a tight leash is a curious practice, especially given that this government, like its predecessors, preaches the values of transparency and democratic engagement.

It is true that outspoken military leaders are more likely to be found in “imperial” capitals with long and active military traditions—e.g., Colin Powell, the former US chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, and Sir Richard Dannatt, chief of the British general staff—rather than in smaller countries accustomed to fitting seamlessly (and almost invisibly) into alliance structures. In the US, vigorous, well-funded, and well-staffed congressional committees routinely compel testimony by the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff and from military officers. (Arguably, this is easier in a political system built on checks and balances, but Britain’s parliamentary system also does a far better job than Canada’s.) Committee members with security clearances and substantial research budgets routinely ask tough questions and follow up when they are dissatisfied with the answers. Senators and members of Congress spend years on committees dealing with defence, national security, and foreign policy. They become recognized experts and can challenge government officials and military leaders authoritatively.

In Ottawa, by contrast, House committee memberships change frequently, well before MPs develop expertise in the subject matter. While both House and Senate committees hold hearings, summon witnesses, and write reports, the questioning tends to be less rigorous, and the absence of security clearances limits the quality and depth of information officials and officers can and do provide. “Committee sessions,” said a retired member of the Department of National Defence (dnd), “based on my own experience, provide very limited opportunities for real understanding.” Moreover, committee reports generally receive little attention from the media and less from the public.

Robert Fowler, a former deputy minister of defence, illustrates the challenge of speaking truth to power privately, much less to the public. Responding to the allegation that in 2003 few in Ottawa realized that the deployment to Kabul would draw Canada into a long-term military operation, Fowler claims just the opposite was true. In the departments of Defence and Foreign Affairs, there was “a world-weary and very deep understanding… that we were in Afghanistan for the long haul,” he says. And yet, in their advice to ministers, both civilian and military officials framed the options around an exit strategy that would allow Canada to withdraw most of its troops within a year. If Fowler’s assessment is correct, it represents a stinging indictment of his former colleagues: officials failed in their most basic responsibility to warn elected leaders. This would help explain the lack of informed public discussion about the very real possibility of a long-term commitment in Afghanistan.

While this taboo against openness has contributed directly to stifling debate, even Hillier does not always come down on the side of transparency. In March 2007, dnd added an extra layer of scrutiny to virtually every access-to-information request for details about the Afghanistan mission. This may make life easier for senior officials and military leaders within dnd, and may be politically convenient for the elected leadership, but the slowing down—and at times obstruction—of the release of documents impedes debate and, arguably, reduces public support for the Afghanistan mission when documents are finally released. This issue would explode again and again, as the government faced challenges to its detainee transfer policy in federal court. It confused the public, exacerbated tensions between the government and military leaders, and ultimately led exactly where no one wants to go: General Hillier crossing the line into policy and politics.

Defending its policy in federal court, the government released information that Canada had suspended its transfer of detainees. Harper’s chief spokesperson then went on to assert—incorrectly—that the CF had not informed the government that the transfers had been suspended. Hours later, she retracted her statement but offered no explanation. Canada’s military leadership was uncharacteristically silent, but furious. Asadullah Khalid, the governor of Kandahar Province, had been accused by one of the prisoners of participating in torture. Khalid denied the allegation and claimed, as did the government of Canada, that this is properly a matter for the Afghan military to investigate. Responding to press questions, Hillier said, “Governor Asadullah has been doing some phenomenal work in Kandahar Province. Obviously, we have worked with him because he is the governor there. And we have seen some incredible changes in the province.” Hillier should not have spoken out publicly about Khalid; this is not his remit.

What was worse, in response to suggestions that Canada move from the Kandahar theatre to a less dangerous province, Hillier stated that such a move made no sense. “All your investment in an area now actually goes down the tubes,” he explained. “The logic of just picking that up and moving somewhere else and having any effect for some years is just not there.” Hillier had clearly crossed the line into the domain of policy. Where Canada’s military goes is a matter for the government, and the government only, to decide. (And it may well see a logic to moving the CF out of Kandahar, as was the case in 2005 when Canada moved its forces out of Kabul.) Hillier’s responsibility is to provide advice on the operational feasibility of a move, not to decide whether moving would adversely affect Canada’s investment in Afghanistan.

There is a case where Hillier played a central role in crafting defence policy, but not as a rogue officer who challenged the civilian leadership. Rather, he did so at the request of a prime minister frustrated by the absence of policy ideas coming from the civilian bureaucracies.

It is the responsibility of senior public servants in all departments, including dnd and the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade (dfait), to develop policy options, evaluate them, and then present proposals to their respective ministers (who in turn bring them to Cabinet). Searching for new policies in a world changed by 9/11, Prime Minister Martin charged senior civil servants at dnd and dfait, and indeed across the government, to produce an integrated defence, diplomacy, trade, and international development policy for Canada in the twenty-first century. More than a year later, new ideas were scarce, and little had been accomplished. Frustrated, Defence Minister Bill Graham asked Hillier, newly appointed as cds, to craft a defence policy statement that would satisfy Martin’s ambition. It was a direct request, and within one month Hillier had taken a draft dnd policy document, framed it within the overarching challenges created by failed and failing states, and developed an agenda for the transformation of Canada’s military to meet those challenges.

Canada’s current mission to Kandahar, of which Hillier is the principal architect, reflects that agenda. Hillier put together the package of five military components that define it—in Kandahar, a provincial reconstruction team, command of the multinational headquarters, deployment of jtf 2 special forces, a combat infantry task force, and a strategic advisory team in Kabul. Hillier’s central role in designing and championing the Kandahar mission to both Martin and Harper has profoundly influenced the course of Canadian defence and foreign policy. It is more than curious that the responsibility for generating such a policy was not grabbed by senior civil servants—a move that would have certainly raised the issue of too little “civilian control.” This said, many of these same public servants were as frustrated by a sclerotic process of decision-making and micromanagement by the prime minister’s office. Hillier, in other words, was asked to fill a void in a dysfunctional policy-making system. He did not take control of policy from civilians; he was given control of policy by elected leaders.

The balance between civil servants inside dnd and military leaders is the fulcrum on which good policy rests. National Defence Headquarters was created in 1972. Over time, its structure and organization have evolved so that today civilians and military officers work side by side, and many positions can be filled by either. Despite this cross-fertilization, ndhq remains a house divided, with two large, separate bureaucracies ultimately responsible to the cds and the deputy minister, respectively. The role of the deputy minister and the civilian defence bureaucracy is not outlined precisely in statute, leaving it open to interpretation and delegation by the minister. It now encompasses broad responsibilities: defence policy, financial administration, public affairs, and procurement. In contrast, the mandate of the cds is clearly delineated in the National Defence Act as having responsibility for “the control and administration of the Canadian Forces,” under the direction of the minister. A forceful and assertive civilian leadership provides the essential challenge to the military and support to the minister. It is the sine qua non for responsible decision-making that executes the will of the elected government.

Military organizations function very differently from their civilian counterparts. They have distinct traditions, practices, and cultures, and value authority, hierarchy, rank, and discipline. These practices and traditions serve the military well, whether soldiers are going into battle or are engaged in peace enforcement activities. As Hillier put it in one of his less subtle moments, “We are not the public service of Canada. We are not just another department. We are the Canadian Forces, and our job is to be able to kill people.”

Military culture is adaptive, and this helps to ensure effective operations, but it is not well suited for producing policy. That is not its purpose. The cds does not receive instructions from the prime minister or the clerk of the Privy Council, the minister and deputy do, and the civilian side of dnd is primarily responsible for translating the government’s agenda into defence policy, creating options, and challenging the estimates and judgments of the officer class. A forceful, knowledgeable, and effective civilian defence establishment is critical to striking the appropriate civil-military balance. The minister alone, with a minuscule staff atop a vast and complex organization of roughly 100,000 personnel, cannot perform this role; and, without the countervailing force of strong civilian leadership inside the Defence Department, distinct military perspectives and traditions can lead to agendas that conflict with those of the government.

One unique attribute of the Canadian Forces is their tight bonds of kinship with the American military. There are many reasons for this, including the serial neglect of the CF by successive governments over the past quarter century. That neglect helped to cement a CF dependency on their US counterparts for everything from equipment to training to doctrine. This intimate, even symbiotic relationship profoundly affects the thinking of Canada’s military leaders, and has at times pushed senior officers ahead of their elected government. In early 2003, before Prime Minister Chrétien made the decision not to join the “coalition of the willing” that would soon invade Iraq, the CF leadership, anticipating Canadian involvement in the war, carved out a Canadian naval role in the Persian Gulf and ensured that CF liaison staff were located at US headquarters in Qatar. Canada’s military leaders clearly wanted to participate in the Iraq war—even though the Canadian government and public opinion were leaning in the opposite direction.

Once Chrétien had made up his mind, military leaders fell into line. There was no issue of civilian control of a military that refused to accept its government’s decision. Nevertheless, this situation underlines the need for a vigilant, confident, and forceful civilian leadership inside the defence establishment, to ensure that the military agenda is appropriately framed and constrained within broader government policy and priorities.

Paul Martin has acknowledged that the slashing of the public service during the 1990s contributed directly to the erosion of policy expertise across the government, particularly at dfait. Today, unlike at dnd and the Canadian International Development Agency (cida), funding at Foreign Affairs has not been restored. On the contrary, budget cuts continue as dfait struggles to manage with woefully inadequate resources. It has been forced to close embassies and consulates around the world, and, in some cases, to sell embassies that are ideally located. Its policy capacity has been significantly reduced as it tries to manage day-to-day responsibilities with a shrinking staff. It is little wonder then that dfait’s senior leadership is deeply demoralized as it considers the future of the foreign service in Canada.

This erosion of policy-making capacity inside Foreign Affairs is serious. dfait, along with dnd, cida, and the Privy Council Office, is ultimately responsible for providing foreign and national security policy advice to the government. Furthermore, for development assistance to work it must be twinned with strong and effective diplomacy led by experienced experts, by those with historical and cultural knowledge of the country where assistance is going. A strong Foreign Affairs Department is also essential as a challenge to dnd, and in particular to the military. When the voice of Foreign Affairs is weak—or absent—the prime minister and Cabinet do not get the balanced advice and information they need to make informed decisions.

Kevin Lynch, the clerk of the Privy Council, is well aware of the urgent need to renew Canada’s public service. A talented public servant, he knows good policy requires an engaged civil service that is informed and able to question, challenge, and provide a range of thoughtful policy options to ministers. Nowhere is this more important today—when Canada is fighting a war—than in the departments responsible for foreign and defence policy. Yet budget cutting is only one obstacle to renewal. As important is the marginalization of dfait by successive governments and the centralization of power.

Prime Minister Trudeau was the first to go around officials and run foreign policy out of his own office, and successive governments since have trusted dfait less and less. While Martin despaired over dfait’s seeming inability to develop new policy ideas, in the past few years distrust of the foreign service has become acute. Senior officials in Foreign Affairs are no longer permitted to brief the press without prior permission, even on a not-for-attribution basis. Ambassadors cannot speak publicly on matters of substance without clearing their texts beforehand. Senior officers are less and less willing to talk, even privately. The clampdown is real, and morale is now lower at dfait than it has been in generations. None of this, of course, affects Hillier.

The report of the Independent Panel on Canada’s Future Role in Afghanistan (the Manley report) agrees that diplomats and development workers are unable to speak to the public. “Canada’s ambassadors in Kabul, nato, and other capitals,” they concluded, “have had limited authority to explain Canadian policy.” One member of the panel was less diplomatic. “The muzzling of Foreign Affairs and other departments,” argued Derek Burney, “has led to Canadians being confused about the mission.”

Robert Fowler, a fiercely partisan defender of his former colleagues in the public service, reluctantly acknowledges that today government leaders may well be “improperly briefed by intimidated bureaucrats seeking to please their stern and ever-suspicious masters.” This is an astounding admission from a former public servant. Senior officials, he implies, may no longer be speaking truth to power, even in private.

General Hillier’s willingness to talk openly about when he is right and, equally, when he is wrong in his judgments and assessments is a refreshing change. It needs to be strongly encouraged. Conflicts today may be lower in intensity than “great wars” and more regional in nature, but they are highly problematic, complicated, pervasive; and the warfare itself, more often than not, is asymmetric and requires special training. The dangers are real, and when armies are being sent abroad to fight—rather than kept at home safely in the barracks, as they were throughout most of the Cold War—citizens need to be informed. Whether or not, and where, Canada’s military should go is a matter of policy, a decision only the elected leadership can make. But what the military can do, what financial and recruitment needs it has, and the constraints it bumps up against, are all properly a matter for the cds to discuss directly with the public. These are matters of fact and resources, and calls for civilian control over an outspoken cds eager to discuss them directly with Canadians reflect a unhealthy impulse to control information that belongs in the public domain.

Despite discomfort that Hillier is “above the parapet,” he has not, in fact, challenged the fundamental responsibility of the political leadership to make policy. The “unequal dialogue” characteristic of healthy civil-military relations in a democracy—where generals and elected leaders bluntly express opposing views, usually in private, but in public if necessary, and where the final authority of political leaders remains unambiguous and unquestioned—prevails in Canada today, as it always has. Yet it is a fragile balance, one that must be nourished by strong civil servants who enjoy the confidence of their political leaders.

There is no denying the force of Hillier’s personality, intellect, and vision, but the problem is not a talented cds. Hillier simply exposed and then filled policy gaps that have been deepening in Canada’s foreign and defence policy institutions for years. The capacity to generate policy has atrophied to such an extent that there are no strong countervailing institutions to challenge military thinking and ensure a vigorous policy debate. These institutions can only be rebuilt through strong leadership inside dnd, dfait, and cida. The challenge now is to re-establish the balance Hillier has clearly upset.

Perhaps, then, the debate we are having in Canada about too little civilian control is badly off the mark. Likely we have the wrong end of the stick. Senior civil servants inside dnd and across the government are not challenging the military—or setting boundaries—the way they should. We have a growing democratic and intellectual deficit in Canada around foreign and defence policy, a deficit we can ill afford when the world has never been more important to us. The problem is not too many Hilliers in the military, but too few Hilliers across the government.

Janice Gross Stein directs the Munk School of Global Affairs at the University of ­Toronto, and ­edited the book Diplomacy in the Digital Age .

Eugene Lang was chief of staff to two Liberal defence ministers from 2002 to 2006 and a visiting fellow at the Munk Centre for International Studies at the University of Toronto in 2007.