Harper and Obama can’t agree to disagree on defence

Paul Wells on why the leaders aren’t so far apart, even if Canada won’t pay its share of the bill

AFP/Getty Images

AFP/Getty Images

Stephen Harper and Barack Obama spoke by phone on Aug. 30. The White House “readout” of the call—the bland paragraph-length summary that gets sent out after every such conversation—said the two men discussed the NATO summit in Wales and the “situation in Iraq.” The readout from the Prime Minister’s Office said the same. The White House added: “The President stressed that agreement on increased defence investment in all areas is a top priority at the NATO Summit.” The PMO didn’t mention that part.

Of course it didn’t. Obama’s country spent about 3.8 per cent of GDP on national defence last year, down from 4.7 per cent in 2010, when spending was higher and the U.S. economy was a good deal weaker. Harper’s government spent one per cent of GDP on defence. That’s less than Germany does, and less than France, and less than Russia and Estonia do, as a fraction of total national wealth. Why, it’s even less than Canada spent when Paul Martin was the prime minister. And it’s way below NATO’s suggested level of two per cent of GDP for each member country’s defence budget.

There are all kinds of reasons for our modesty as a warrior state. Harper is trying to eliminate his budget deficit without cutting transfers to individuals (for pensions, mostly) or provinces (for health care and social services). That leaves only programs run out of Ottawa to cut, and defence cuts are easy: Armoured personnel carriers don’t complain to reporters when you stop buying them.

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But if Russian President Vladimir Putin’s adventures in eastern Ukraine are an existential fight between good and evil, then prudent budgeting really shouldn’t enter into it. The Prime Minister suggested as much in a speech last month to a group raising funds for a memorial to the victims of Communism. “Canadians have always supported freedom and democracy for all people,” he said, “and we will not hold back that support now from the people of Ukraine.”

It’s reasonable to suspect that Harper will emerge from the Wales summit with a commitment for renewed Canadian defence spending. But he sure won’t nearly quadruple the department’s budget. Suddenly, it becomes harder than it seemed to identify the hawk and the dove in any picture of Harper and Obama.

Sure, there are important nuances. Harper visited Ukraine early, in March and again in June. Obama, who sends Vice-President Joe Biden or Secretary of State John Kerry to do most such visits, hasn’t been yet. And, of course, Harper spends way more time talking the way columnists like to hear leaders talk. Obama says things like, “We don’t have a strategy yet,” when it comes to ISIS and, “There is not gonna be a military solution,” when it comes to Ukraine.

Add the mounting pile of trouble on Obama’s watch—Ukraine, ISIS, Hamas, savages cutting reporters’ heads off, savages shooting down passenger jets, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates launching their own air strikes in a Libya that has regressed from authoritarianism into anarchy—and you have an image of a president adrift. It’s a near-certainty that, when Harper runs for re-election in 2015, he will contrast Canada’s steady hand with Obama’s waffling.

But again, the differences are mostly rhetorical, if not misleading. Obama and Harper were both reluctant to arm the Syrian opposition, for fear that extremist groups there would be strengthened. With the rise of ISIS, their modesty looks becoming in retrospect. The two men worked together with others to provide military cover for the rebellion against Moammar Gadhafi. It worked great for 2011; who brags about the results there today?

There is not, in fact, going to be a military solution in Ukraine, except the one imposed from Moscow. The same was true in Hungary in 1956, Prague in 1968 and Poland in 1981, when stern and sturdy men held the office Obama occupies today. The only solution to Putin’s adventures is to draw a deep line around NATO with jets and artillery, pray Putin doesn’t test it, and try to wreck the Russian economy in the meantime. On this, Harper and Obama, who can barely stand to talk to each other, do not disagree, except that Obama wishes Harper would pay more of the bill.

Why is Obama such an unsatisfying leader? Partly it’s temperament. But there are two other reasons. First, he inherited three related predicaments: the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and a collapsing domestic economy. Fixing the third meant ending the first two. He kept George W. Bush’s last defence secretary, Bob Gates, who left the post saying any man with his job who advised a big American war abroad “should have his head examined.”

The other reason is that Obama is seeking to accomplish by stealth what Bush couldn’t with big traditional invasion forces: sap and disorient America’s enemies in a thousand small ways, with drones, special forces, cyberwarfare and more. Little of Obama’s aggression abroad is announced with pomp. Some is never revealed at all. He wants results, not rhetoric, to triumph. It’s early to take the measure of his strategy, but it’s what you might try, too, if you’d inherited two wars and the U.S. economy. It’s not that far from the way Harper conducts domestic politics in Canada, avoiding big fights, pushing a hundred other levers, many hidden. Even in ruins, the Harper-Obama relationship continues to fascinate, because the two men have more in common than either will ever admit.




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Harper and Obama can’t agree to disagree on defence

  1. Ukraine has announced a ceasefire and peace agreement for Friday.

    • Let’s talk on Monday.

      • Harper would defend three dice with one, Obama two.

  2. “Even in ruins, the Harper-Obama relationship continues to fascinate, because the two men have more in common than either will ever admit.”

    Get your point, but in other ways the two men represent the polar opposites – they might even stand for stereotypes of their respective ideologies. One is cool and cerebral. He lets in you into his thought processes[ we don't have a stategy ...yet] as much as anything because he believes people want to see this shit is hard, it’s difficult fixing the worlds big problems. The other is all strategy. You don’t show your hand, you don’t ever say, i don’t know, yet! You have to appear strong and in control all the time because that’s what he believes people want to hear. I know which i prefer, even though i part of me wishes it didn’t make BO look like such a waffler – which isn’t at all the whole picture. So, yes i can understand the Harper school even as i detest it.
    Maybe it comes down to personal ability to deliver true nuance and yet still appear strong.Harper certainly doesn’t have it, or isn’t interested in using what he does have for some bizarre reason. And BO seems to have that classic fault of really smart Liberals – trying to see the problem from so many pov that he appears weak and often exasperates even those who like him.[ I'd bet JT's going to need to take some lessons there too]
    It’s a very rare leader that could effectively pull off and effectively combine both of these approaches to olitics and leadership. The gold standard had to have been Churchill and Mandela.[ wonder how they would've gotten along? Probably not well.] But they don’t roll these kind of leaders out of the factory all that often. More’s the pity.

  3. The Saudi’s routinely chop people heads off too. Except not on youtube. And they are our supposed allies. Even though their citizens were responsible for 9/11.

    Why price does NATO put on all the dead and maimed Canadians who took on the some of the more difficult challenges in Afghanistan, while the European wussies took the safe assignments and refused to come help Canada when we requested it?

    We’d be spending more on defense if the F-35′s could actually fly, instead of being grounded all the time. Ditto with those Sikorsky helicopters. Obama and Cameron want us to spend money on a bunch of their military hardware that doesn’t work. What about the Brits hoodwinking the Liberals into buying those junky second hand submarines.

    The Defense Department screwed up their own procurement process. Our defense spending is mainly deferred until Harper can figure out how to fix it.

    It is really hilarious to see all the same media who were whining about how costly the F-35 program was going to be that are now whining that Harper has listened to them and stopped the spending until the Department and the arm suppliers can get their act together with costs under control and jets and helicopters that can actually fly.

    Tell Barack his people lied about the Sikorsky’s and lied about the F-35′s.

    • Better yet.

      Tell Cameron and Barack that we’ll start buying stuff if they guarantee the price, the operating costs, and the performance of the hardware they selling.

      • You’ve just discovered major arms companies lie to govt! Where ya bin for the last 50 years boy…mars

    • Shorter WSYW…nothing is Harper’s fault. How’s that competition for a new fighter coming along?

    • I get that the whole purpose of whyshouldisellyourwheat is to blame someone else for CPC shortcomings, regardless of the facts.
      But seriously – Obama is responsible for Canadian war planes now?
      Don’t you have any self-respect?

      And the U.S. and the U.K. spent more and lost more lives than Canada in Afghanistan, both in per capita and absolute terms.

  4. With our ‘friends’ the Saudi’s beheading their own citizen’s at a rate of one a day this month who needs ISIS?

  5. Yeesh. Just cop that look Harper’s giving Obama…measure him up for the rope if he could.

    • “If only my Army was as big as his Salvation Army…”

    • Well, it’s an old photo, so what does that tell you?

  6. Paul, you’re quite right in your thesis that Obama and Harper find themselves in a very similar spot right now. I’m sure they’re both having a huge “ick” moment just thinking about it. What I think you understate is just how different the paths that led them to this convergence of sorts.

    The two of them could hardly have come at it from different positions. Where Obama had the famous/infamous “reset” with Russia when he seemed to think he could have something approaching normal relations with Putin’s Russia, I can remember Harper having no such illusions about Putin. Does anybody really believe Obama would spend 3.8% of the USA’s GDP on defense if it wasn’t for deeply entrenched support on both sides of the aisle in Congress for it? And that Harper would be happy spending a measly 1% if he wasn’t hell-bent on eliminating the deficit and scared of being lynched if he took money out of other domestic spending to move money to defense?

    Beyond that, they seem like they are not comfortable in the position they are in. Harper really needs a larger military to add heft to the statements he’s made on Ukraine and ISIS while Obama has been dragged into this kicking and screaming.

    So how about this: Obama and Harper trade countries for a couple of years! Obama could come up here and spend Harper’s surplus on domestic programs and work to create the Utopia he promised when he ran for election. And Harper could go to the U.S. and serve as commander in Chief of the world’s largest military for a few years and try to affect the type of change in the world he talks about in his public statements. Everybody’s happy

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