With things going badly in Iraq, it’s getting harder and harder to find a war hawk willing to come out of the closet. Among those preferring to keep their former gung-ho support for the U.S. invasion away from the bright light of day is Conservative leader Stephen Harper.

Only last year, when warmongering filled the air, Harper harshly criticized Ottawa for refusing to send Canadians to join American troops in Iraq, telling reporters that we should “be there with them doing everything necessary to win.”

Harper also blasted Ottawa in an interview with the fiercely pro-war Fox News, and in an article he wrote in The Wall Street Journal.

American conservatives were no doubt gleeful to see Canada’s refusal to go to war denounced by one of Canada’s own political leaders.

But now, in the midst of a tightly-fought Canadian election campaign, Harper is trying to reinvent himself — particularly for Ontario voters — as a bland, harmless, Bill Davis-style moderate. He’s hoping we’ll forget that, had he been in charge last year, Canadians might now be coming home in body bags or showing up in prison torture videos.

Harper now denies he would have sent troops to Iraq, explaining that “we did not have the hardware and manpower to make any commitments in Iraq.”

This suggests that only the lack of troops and equipment would have held him back — a deficiency he now promises to overcome. Last week, he pledged to spend an extra $5 billion on the military over four years, pushing up troop strength and eventually purchasing aircraft carriers.

He’s made clear his ultimate goal is to boost Canada’s military spending to two per cent of GDP — an increase of about $10 billion a year.

This kind of talk thrills Canada’s defence lobby — a host of retired generals, academics and military contractors — who have been trying to convince Canadians that our military is woefully underfunded.

But is this really the case?

We spend $13 billion a year on our military, which makes us the sixth biggest military spender among the 26 nations of NATO. Isn’t that enough for a nation that has no aggressive intentions and is separated by huge oceans from any trouble spots?

The notion of Canada as a significant military spender probably doesn’t jibe with what you’ve heard. That’s because Harper and the defence lobby routinely portray Canada as a laggard whose military spending ranks only above little Luxembourg among NATO nations.

They manage to make Canada’s military look shrivelled by measuring military spending as a share of GDP, rather than in actual dollars.

That may sound reasonable, but here’s the first clue that it isn’t. As we all know, the biggest military spender in the world is the United States, which spends more on its military than most of the rest of the world combined.

But, using the measuring-stick favoured by Canada’s defence lobby (percentage of GDP), the biggest military spender in NATO isn’t the United States. It’s Turkey! And next biggest is another military powerhouse — Greece!

Turkey and Greece appear to be big military spenders because they are relatively poor. Although they don’t spend nearly as much as the U.S. — or even Canada — their military spending amounts to a large per cent of their GDPs because they have such small GDPs.

Of course, as a richer country, Canada should bear a relatively higher burden — if this were some important public good we were contributing to.

Harper likes to remind us of our commitments in the great world wars.

But those wars bear little resemblance to what’s going on today, despite an unconscionable attempt by George W. Bush last week to link his free-wheeling “war on terror” with the great struggle against Nazi Germany in World War II.

Beefing up Canada’s military is mostly about increasing our role in the “war on terror.” For instance, the Canadian Council of Chief Executives (formerly the BCNI) has argued for a stronger military that “will enable Canada to contribute more effectively to the global war on terror.”

This is Harper’s plan, too, according to Steven Staples, a defence analyst with the Ottawa-based Polaris Institute: “Harper’s plan would make Canada’s military forces more easily integrated into the war on terror.”

Being a junior helper in America’s open-ended war might not be what Canadians have in mind.

But, if Harper gets elected, Canada will be ready next time Washington comes looking for a troop division to help it invade — who knows? — perhaps Iran or Cuba.

Prime Minister Harper will be able to say, “Right away, sir, and would you like an aircraft carrier with that?”

Linda McQuaig

Journalist and best-selling author Linda McQuaig has developed a reputation for challenging the establishment. As a reporter for The Globe and Mail, she won a National Newspaper Award in 1989...