Hudson on the Hill

Lead, Follow, or Get Out of the Way!
HUDSON ON THE HILL  |  Mar 15, 2010

There is an often impolitely expressed expectation among Canadian soldiers; “Lead, follow or get out of the way.” DND and the Canadian Forces lead.

Other ‘action’ agencies in government, like the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, can also be depended upon to lead – witness the successful integrated security effort that covered the recent Olympic Winter Games in Vancouver.

However, operational initiative is not always appreciated by other elements of government. Some in the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFAIT) seem to resent having to play catch-up to military readiness and action.

The ‘can-do’ attitude of the Canadian Forces (CF) is never more apparent than in moments of crisis and adversity. The Canadian Navy has established itself as the quick-reaction spearhead of strategically relevant, operationally effective military deployments – combat ready (such as counter-terrorism in the Mediterranean and Arabian Seas), or humanitarian relief (such as Haiti). The Canadian Navy arrived within days of the earthquake in Haiti and sailors began projecting aid and humanitarian services ashore.

The Canadian Army and Canadian Air Force were not far behind. A land component headquarters was quickly established ashore in Haiti within days, coordinating further Canadian aid activity. Concurrently, the Air Force was working with Jamaican authorities to establish an air bridge in Jamaica to support CF operations in Haiti. The entire Canadian Forces was ‘leaning forward’ to get things done.

DFAIT, meanwhile, was scrambling to organize a more substantial ‘whole-of-gov­ern­ment’ response package. The Stabilization and Reconstruction Task Force, led by Elissa Golberg, worked to coordinate government relief effort through an interdepartmental committee of bureaucrats.

In the meantime, Brigadier-General Guy Laroche, the designated Canadian Task Force Commander was already in Port-au-Prince and Jacmel, working with Gilles Rivard, the Canadian Ambassador to Haiti, to supervise the deployment of the CF Disaster Assistance Response Team (DART) and relief supplies coming ashore from Canada’s warships. News was making its way back to Canada via various Canadian media organizations that had also arrived in Haiti, supported by the Department of National Defence (DND) Public Affairs staff. And this was when DFAIT got into a snit. After complaining to the PMO, the public affairs lead shifted from DND to DFAIT. The story promptly drifted off the front pages.

There is a long-standing, barely-polite tension between DND/Canadian Forces and DFAIT. It centers on the difference between the two cultures. DND and the CF are ‘doers.’ They have plans and when the government says ‘go do this,’ they go and do it. DFAIT doesn’t ‘do’ things, it ‘addresses’ them. DFAIT doesn’t ‘take’ action, it ‘coordinates’ it.

DFAIT is protective of its interdepartmental foreign policy coordination role, and when events unfold faster than they can call meetings, they get snarky. They get even more testy if anyone gets ahead of them, like DND and the CF always do when quick action is needed.

Even Ms. Golberg, who was once a fan of the Canadian Forces when she lived among the troops on Kandahar airfield, is reported to have reverted to her original DFAIT DNA, becoming aggravated by Canadian Forces initiatives in Haiti. It seems the CF was doing things without asking permission first or, worse yet, acting on the basis of verbal agreements by foreign officials, trusting that the paperwork would catch up.

These circumstances remind us of similar DFAIT unhappiness at being sidelined during the reign of General Rick Hillier, who became the public face of the Canadian mission in Afghanistan (by explaining it to Canadians and pushing for the resources needed to make it work). A particular burr beneath the DFAIT saddle was the Strategic Advisory Team (SAT). Set up by General Hillier as a result of a personal relationship with Afghan President Hamid Karzai, the team helped Afghan ministries accomplish their objectives. That this military staff contribution reported directly to the Chief of the Defence Staff caused no end of whining in DFAIT. When General Hillier left, DFAIT quickly moved to replace the SAT with a smaller and much more innocuous General Support Office (GSO).

The two solitudes differ not in the ends to be achieved, but in their view and pace of getting there. DFAIT’s fundamental inclination is to eventually find a diplomatic or political solution to every problem – an admirable aim that unfortunately often translates into significant wait time.

Make no mistake, DND and the Canadian Forces understand they merely contribute to diplomatic and political solutions, but they also know that there are times when urgency is ­necessary in order for more polite and cerebral proceedings, led by DFAIT, to have any effect.

DND and the Canadian Forces lead. DFAIT obviously does not like to follow; and since ­getting out of the way is not an option, DFAIT processes must evolve to get ahead of military operations. Leading is best done from the front.

© FrontLine Defence 2010