Justin Trudeau is not the Commander-in-Chief

Corporeality VIII: An Undivided Prime Minister and the Division of Powers


Howard Adelman

David Bercuson, a noted military historian at the University of Calgary and Director of its Centre for Military and Strategic Studies, is also the Director of Programs of the Canadian Defence and Foreign Affairs Institute also based in Calgary. He wrote an op-ed two days ago in The Globe and Mail entitled, “Remind us, why are we pulling out of the IS mission?http://www.theglobeandmail.com/opinion/remind-us-why-are-we-pulling-out-of-the-is-mission/article28663570/

The op-ed began, “The Trudeau government announced its intention to withdraw from direct combat against Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (the CF-18 bombing campaign) just two days after a major national poll revealed a majority of Canadians still support that very mission. To be sure, Canada’s efforts against IS will continue – we will train more anti-IS troops, we will provide more humanitarian aid, we will help our coalition partners with aircraft that can refuel their fighter jets and point them in the direction they need to kill IS and to destroy its governance and logistical centres, but we won’t be shooting IS ourselves. That’s not what Canadians want and the action taken by this government begs explanation from the Prime Minister himself.”

Not likely, at least in terms of an acceptable explanation. Instead others will have to provide one. Bercuson offers a sarcastic critical one, suggesting that the decision “possibly stems from his juvenile comment almost a year ago that his predecessor wanted to ‘whip out his CF-18s’ to meet the crisis, and nothing more. Unless that is, the Prime Minister himself is a pacifist…” There is a bit of insight in that off-the-cuff remark and even more in the book by the Canadian military historian who wrote, Canada’s Soldiers: The Military History of an Unmilitary People. We live in a peaceable kingdom but, as Bercuson says, when our soldiers “believe great evil is loose, directed against them or their allies (9/11 and IS), they do not shy away.” So why is Trudeau backing out of the air war, leaving behind refueling and guidance aircraft and reinforcing the training mission?

I have no inside knowledge, but I offer the following explanation. But first a brief review of the powers assigned to the Prime Minister for making (or not making) war. No matter which position one takes in the United States, given the consolidation of powers in the same office of both civilian leader and Commander-in-Chief, there will always be an inherent debate on the “broad substantive war powers’ conferred on the President, a virtually non-exiting debate in Canada. Canadians do not have that discussion because, in Canada, the armed forces are “Her Majesty’s Armed Forces.” David Johnson, the current Governor General, is authorized to exercise the powers and responsibilities belonging to the sovereign. He has been bestowed with the title, Commander-in-Chief, though the title has varied depending on how the armed forces have been organized.

Thus, all executive power as Commander-in-Chief is legally reposed in the Canadian sovereign. The only constitutional means by which decisions are made to declare war and who can command the deployment and disposition of the Canadian Armed Forces is the Commander-in-Chief. However, Canada has a system of responsible government. Declarations of war are issued with the approval, and in the name, of the Governor General on the advice of the federal cabinet. Further, formally, the Governor General appoints the Chief of the Defence Staff and distributes awards and honours.

There is almost no possibility constitutionally of the civilian head of the military, as commander-in-chief, that is, of the Governor General, engaging in overstretch. The GG’s functions are only formal. The resort to the use of the military is inherently a last resort by civilian authorities, making the danger of applying militarist principles to civilian life highly unlikely, but not altogether impossible as we shall see. The Prime Minister by definition is a Moses not an Aaron. He is exclusively a civilian political leader. Americans have to continually fight and argue to ensure that the President acts only in a supervisory way over the military and does not exceed his powers as Commander-in-Chief.

Military adventurism and a military coup are remote possibilities in Canada. However, the use of military measures in domestic politics has not been. This was evidenced when Justin Trudeau’s father, Pierre Elliot Trudeau, while he was Prime Minister, invoked the perfectly appropriately titled “War Measures Act” to round up and imprison 500 or so Canadian citizens when homegrown separatist terrorists in the FLQ kidnapped and killed a provincial minister. They were arrested under the principle of état de siège fictif (a constructed state of siege).

Emergency degrees exist in the vast majority of democratic constitutions and a great deal of ink has been spilled on defining a state of exception. However, in the FLQ crisis, even the most fundamental premise of democratic government was suspended, namely Habeas Corpus. Further, it was done for the flimsiest of security reasons when there was absolutely no danger to the security of the state. Of course, coups take place in times of tumult, but replacing the fundamentals of domestic law should be reserved, if it takes place ever, only for a truly very extreme state of emergency, only then should the possibility of the suspension of the normal prevalence of civilian legal norms and invoking martial law be considered. As it were, in this case, the War Measures Act was invoked less for any “military” reasons to counteract a perceived threat than as a political maneuver to allow separatists to be branded as potential terrorists. This was the symbolic importance of invoking the War Measures Act, not civilian protection from a physical threat, but rather the political threat of separatism.

On 13 October 1970, just before Justin was born, and after Pierre Laporte’s’ body was found, that supposedly powerful proponent of civil liberties, Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau promised drastic action. Three days after answering a reporter’s question of what he was going to do and, in response, replied, “Just watch me,” Trudeau delivered much more than drastic action; with the support of 87% of Canadians, he introduced the most extreme draconian curtailment of civil liberties in the history of Canada. (Cf. Larry Zolf (1984) Just Watch Me: Remembering Pierre Trudeau and the second volume of John English’s biography, Just Watch Me: The Life of Pierre Elliot Trudeau, 1968-2000.)

When Justin Trudeau recycled the phrase in his campaign against Stephen Harper, the phrase did not mean, “I am as tough as nails.” It meant, I am my own man. Just watch me. I am not the keeper of my father’s flame. I am its antithesis with respect to war measures. I am not just a “chip off the old block” as Thomas Walkom claimed with respect to protecting human rights, easily cast aside in the face of a perceived threat. For Justin, diplomacy and witnessing would be the prime means of protecting human rights, both for Canadians and for those abroad. On the other hand, although Canadian political leaders are in a poor position to engage in adventurism abroad compared to American presidents, they are in a much stronger position to abuse human rights, especially when they have the backing of most Canadians.

Constitutionally, Canadian political leaders are predisposed towards the peaceful end of the spectrum in foreign policy but have few controls when it comes to the use of force domestically. The constitution reinforced his peaceful propensities abroad and the shaping of his psyche reinforced that predisposition so that, “Just watch me” signalled the very opposite message than the one Pierre Trudeau broadcast.

Beyond the psychological underpinnings of Justin Trudeau’s decision to withdraw the six Canadian CF-18 Hornet fighter aircraft from the field of battle in Iraq and Syria, and contrary to any suggestions that the withdrawal was a measure to prevent “mission creep” or reduce the chances of Canada being targeted by Daesh, but consistent with his psyche as it has developed, Justin had four factors pushing such a response to extreme threats. First was an image. Justin wanted to project that he was not a Top Gun, that he was not macho. He was the very opposite of Putin. Though abandoned by his mother, he remained a mother’s boy with enormous sympathy for the plight of others – hence the powerful message about Canada taking in Syrian refugees.

But then why increase the advisers and trainers on the ground? Canada has a duty to its allies to participate in the fight, but without the stark macho imagery. Trudeau wanted to project an image of Canada as a peaceable kingdom, as a compassionate nation and as a member of the world community committed to combating man-made climate change. However, there were other reasons than the issue of media image.

Money is a second factor. In 1991, in the Kuwait War, over a much, much shorter period, Canada deployed four times as many jet fighter aircraft than in the current conflict in Iraq and Syria. The costs were enormous. Jason Kenney testified in the House of Commons that the deployment of the aircraft in Iraq and Syria would cost $403 million per year. The cost of the Syrian refugee resettlement program was estimated at $1.2 billion over six years, or $200 million per year. Even with leaving the non-combat aircraft in the theatre of war against Daesh, the saving in cancelling the CF-18 fighter aircraft would far more than offset the costs of the refugee resettlement program plus the increased training program. Then there is the capital cost of replacement of fighter aircraft. The cost of 65 new F-35 Lightnings to replace the CF-18 Hornets is now $30 billion over 30 years, or $1 billion per year or slightly more than $15 million per aircraft per year.

In addition to the issues of media image and money, there is also the issue of using a measured response to the danger posed and responding in a measured or proportional way. To assess the problem, just examine the use of the six Hornets at this time last year. They were either used to directly attack ISIL targets or in support of air operations. As I counted, there were roughly 14 missions in January last year. Typically, the jets would attack a few ISIL positions and destroy some military equipment. At the end of January last year, “On 29 January, Canadian CF-18s attacked two ISIL positions and two vehicles. Following that on 30 January, they bombed an ISIL position northwest of Baghdad.”

At what cost in human civilian lives, in compromising our sense of obligation towards civilians?  “An airstrike on an ISIL position along a highway northwest of Mosul …on 21 January in support of efforts to retake the road,” resulted in anywhere from 6 to 27 civilians dead. The next major target in the war will be Mosul. It has half a million inhabBercuson

Justin Trudeau is not Commander-in-Chief of the Canadian armed forces. He can make withdrawal decisions on non-military grounds far easier than Barack Obama. George W. Bush ran for office on a domestic agenda and a foreign policy based on disengagement. He ended up becoming a war president. Early in his presidency, Condoleezza Rice, his National Security Adviser, insisted that Bush had no interest any longer in America serving as the “world’s policeman.” Look where he ended up! Based on his foreign policy adventurism guided by a Svengali vice-president, Dick Cheney, George W. Bust became one of the worst presidents in American history. Barack Obama was elected to unify America, to restore its economy and to withdraw from undesirable wars like Iraq. He presides over a deeply divided America though with a recovered economy, but without benefitting most Americans. Most of all, to his personal great regret, America is once again deeply involved in Iraq.

When it is unequivocal that a Canadian Prime Minister is not the Commander-in-Chief, the rule of civilian authority over military power is unambiguous. But when the two functions reside in the same one person, even when the President wants to reinforce the principle of the divisibility of powers and the supremacy of civilian over military rule, he is trapped by his responsibilities and has to stay up late deciding whether it is appropriate to target this person or that person with a drone strike. He becomes the number one assassin on the world stage. It is almost as if an American who becomes president cannot avoid becoming an imperial president to some degree.

I do not know how valid this effort at an explanation is, but it behooves all of us to search deeper for explanations instead of simply serving as Justin Trudeau’s superego. I believe that strategic considerations alone do not come near to explaining Trudeau’s withdrawal from the field of battle of the six Hornets since the withdrawal makes too little strategic sense.


With the help of Alex Zisman


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