By now we all know that there has been a big cock up in Ottawa since the Department of National Defence decided to purchase the F-35 Lightning II fighter-bomber from the United States. The Auditor General has issued a scathing report. The Liberal and NDP opposition in the House of Commons has had a field day attacking the Harper government. But absent from all the political hype is any discussion of the central issue: where is the need for this aircraft within Canada’s broad military policy? On this question we can see that the position of all three of our major political parties is at variance with that of the general public.

Public opinion and Canadian defence policy

There is no question that the events of 9/11 had a dramatic impact on Canadians and their views on national security and defence. But an even greater impact has been the history of Canada’s participation in the U.S.-led and directed war in Afghanistan.

Canada’s mass media has consistently been a strong supporter of Canada’s role as the loyal ally of the United States in foreign policy and its military activities. Thus it is even more surprising to discover that over the past 10 years Canadian public opinion polls on foreign and defence policy have found that a majority of Canadians are not comfortable with Canada’s role as an aggressive NATO military power and would much prefer to see our country committed once again to United Nations peacekeeping. They would rather Canada act through the UN to provide relief for famine than to drop bombs on less developed countries.

In spite of a major government and media campaign for support of the war in Afghanistan, the majority of Canadians have often disagreed. For example, the Focus Canada polls by Environics have consistently reported low support for the Afghan war, once as low as 24 per cent.

Angus Reid polls have reported similar results over recent years: 55 per cent to 59 per cent opposed to the Afghan war; in 2009 82 per cent wanted to end Canada’s combat role with only 12 per cent in support. In July 2009 they reported that only 38 per cent believed that the Canadian government was right to send our troops to Afghanistan in the first place. Ipsos Reid reported in September 2011 that 75 per cent of Canadians did not believe that the war in Afghanistan was worth the cost. An Angus Reid poll from March 2011 found that 63 per cent of Canadians opposed the military operation of Canadians in Afghanistan with only 32 per cent in support.

A number of polls have reported that around 70 per cent of Canadians prefer a peacekeeping role to a military role in “peacemaking.” The Ekos Research poll in 2005 found Canadians preferring peace keeping over “peace making” by a ratio of two to one.

What do Canadians want as a defence policy?

In October 2010 Nanos Research asked Canadians what their priorities were for the federal government’s budget. Of the five issues listed, health care ranked first followed by education, jobs and the economy, the environment and taxes. Spending on the military ranked last.

When asked what should be the priority for Canada’s armed forces, the results were as follows:

1. UN peacekeeping
2. Security operations with the U.S.
3. European NATO commitments
4. Overseas combat missions

A key question asked: “Would you support Canada having another mission like Afghanistan?” The results: 54 per cent strongly opposed, 11 per cent somewhat opposed, 12 per cent strongly supported and 9 per cent somewhat supported. The rest were unsure. None of our three major political parties reflect this majority position.

In June 2011 Ipsos Reid conducted a public opinion poll for the Department of National Defence to see what role the Canadian public would like them to play. The results were as follows:

1. At the top of the list was disaster relief in Canadian communities
2. Ranked second was search and rescue
3. Third was patrolling Canadian air space, land and maritime areas
4. Next came enforcing Canada’s sovereignty in the Arctic
5. “Fighting the war on terrorism” came last

A poll by Ipsos six months earlier showed that Canadians expressed strong support for the Canadian rank and file forces, but only four per cent said that the military and defence should be at the top of the public’s agenda.

Military policy after the end of the Cold War

Many people hoped that there would be a “peace dividend” with the end of the Cold War and the conversion of China to a capitalist economy with deep ties to the United States. But this has not happened.

The primary focus of U.S. policy has shifted to support for the Carter Doctrine: protecting U.S. domination of the oil industry in the Middle East and Central Asia. There was also the side show, Ronald Reagan’s National Security Council project proclaimed in 1984, the destruction of the Communist regime in Yugoslavia, to be achieved by breaking up the country.

A key to this overall policy was to maintain the Anglo-American alliance to dominate the world, with greater use of NATO and the UN Security Council. Military spending would remain high; in Canada it has been greatly increased under the Harper governments.

The role of the CF-35

Thus for our political, economic and military leaders, the purchase of the CF-35 is to demonstrate that Canada endorses and will continue to support this U.S. policy. Post Cold War conflicts have been between the advanced capitalist countries, led by the U.S.A., and less developed countries. This military effort does not involve engaging in combat with other air forces.

The key role of the CF-35 will be to attack targets on the ground with bombs, missiles and rockets. Canadian Forces did this in the first Gulf War, slaughtering unarmed Iraqi conscripted soldiers as they attempted to go home after being defeated in combat on the ground. In Yugoslavia the Canadian Air Force, operating under NATO direction, dropped bombs on just about everything. In Lybia, Canada and several NATO allies carried out an extensive bombing campaign in support of the Islamist forces trying to oust the regime headed by Muammar Gaddafi. Like the bombing campaign in Yugoslavia, this was deemed “humanitarian intervention.”

So for the majority of Canadians who are not in favour of such a military policy, what is to be done? The Harperites and the Liberals have a deep commitment to continuing this policy. But what of the NDP? During the Cold War, the NDP, like all the western social democratic parties and governments, gave full support to the NATO alliance, the extensive mobilization for war and support for the major development of nuclear weapons.

Since then they have demonstrated a firm commitment to the Anglo-American alliance to dominate the world. The NDP caucus in Ottawa supported all of the post-Cold War Canadian military actions. Yes, even Jack Layton. Will Thomas Mulcair be different? Not to date. It will take a major public effort to convince the caucus of the Official Opposition that the majority of Canadians prefer a focus on peace and not war.