Learning Too Few Lessons

by Stephen Saideman

Several years ago, I had heard in various bars in the Byward Market that the Canadian government under Stephen Harper had engaged in a serious Lessons Learned exercise about Afghanistan.  I heard that the document was buried (I used the last scene of Raiders of the Lost Ark to illustrate).  I tried an Access to Information Request in January of 2013, but got rejected because the document was viewed as “advice to cabinet” and containing sensitive information about Canada’s allies.  I thought this was hogwash, so I appealed.  I got the document just before my recent trip to Brazil (here it is),* so I didn’t have time to process it.

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Crisis in Civ-Mil? Sajjan and Canada’s Misplaced Attention

I spent much of November and December arguing that naming a very recently retired former general as Secretary of Defense is problematic–that there is much confusion to be had, by the former officer, the person who picked him, and the public.  Well, we see in recent days that this argument may have applied to the country to the north as well.

Harjit Sajjan has gotten into hot water for stating that he was the architect for a major effort, Operation Medusa,* in Afghanistan in 2006.  Whether he was or was not (probably not), this is problematic to those soldiers who serves because he is seen as taking credit for what was a multi-person effort.  So, either bragging or lying violates the sense of honor that Canadian soldiers have.  Today, Sajjan will be answering questions about it in Parliament.

So, what is my take?  Is this just a tempest in a teapot? No.  Is this a fireable offense? Probably not. Is this mostly distraction sauce?  Probably.  Let me explain my still confused take.

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First Reactions to Syria Strike: Yet More Uncertainty

by Stephen Saideman

The missile strike against the airfield in Syria raises far more questions than it answers (for an excellent initial take, see here).  As I think about it, I have to be honest that my confirmation bias might be at work: that anything Trump does is wrong in my mind.  Would I have approved of Hillary Clinton doing the same thing?  Not so sure as I have become quite skeptical about the use of force, so let’s run through the situation itself before we get to the Trumpness of it all.

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NATO Spark Notes for President Trump

by Stephen Saideman

Dear President Trump,

I see that you are still confused about how NATO works.  While there is, indeed, some money that goes to keep the lights on at NATO headquarters in Brussels, Mons, and elsewhere, and there are a few key NATO military units (early warning planes, some drones, a few other bits and pieces), the burden-sharing problem is not about that.

In your meeting with Chancellor Merkel, you said:

I reiterated to Chancellor Merkel my strong support for NATO, as well as the need for our NATO allies to pay their fair share for the cost of defense. Many nations owe vast sums of money from past years and it is very unfair to the United States. These nations must pay what they owe.

No, that is not how it works.  The burden-sharing problem that has been the subject of many NATO meetings, including the Wales Summit, is about each country paying enough (the 2% of GDP aspiration) for their own defense.  It is not about Germany or France or Estonia giving money to Brussels or to the US, but about Germany spending enough on new tanks, planes, ships and enough on a large enough armed forces and enough on fuel and all the rest.  The idea is not that the US is getting ripped off, that somehow countries owe the US money, but that the alliance would be better off if all the allies spent more on their armed forces.  The past shortfalls do not mean that countries are in debt to the US or to NATO–it just means that their militaries are not in as good shape as we would like.  It means that they don’t have as many tanks or planes or whatever or that their personnel are not as well trained.  The underspending over the years is problematic, but these countries do not owe any debts from the past to catch up in their accounts at NATO HQ.  Again, this is not how it works.

So, next time you complain about burden-sharing, don’t suggest that the US is owed money.  Because it is simply wrong.

Thanks,
Sincerely,
Steve

Academics in the Media Landscape

by Stephen M. Saideman

Carleton is having an event that, among other things, ponders the future of public affairs stuff 25 years from now.  I was on a panel on:Academics in the Media Landscape: The Role of Scholar-Columnist-Bloggers with Stephanie Carvin, my colleague and frequent twitter banterer, Mira Sucharov,Hayden King,Dwayne Winseck and Frances Woolley (who is frequently wrong about bags of milk).

What did I say about the future of blogging?  I started with humility as I am not sure what 2042 will look like.  I put up pics of computing 25 years ago, now and the future (but blogger didn’t like them so you can’t see them here).

To suggest that 25 years ago, we had no idea what computers/the internet would look like in 2017 and thus we can’t predict 2042 too well.

My second point is that we can’t be too humble–we need to put ourselves out there even if we might be wrong, and so I displayed my post predicting a reasonably big Hillary Clinton victory.  Ooops.

I then suggested what will remain the same and what may change. In short, more academics will do some kind of social media to communicate their work, but not all as we are a varied group of folks, that how we do it will change quite a bit (who knows what the successor to twitter may be), that politicians will still be upset when academics say things about them, but that universities will eventually learn that trying to sit on bloggers is counter productive.  I also made a clear statement that tenure in the future, if it still exists, will still be focused on reserach and not engagement.  Oh, and that the media will rely on us even more since we provide heaps of content, including for those reporters who just want to cut and past a few tweets.

I concluded by saying our (academics) role is and will be:

  • Translate academic knowledge into digestible bits for broader audiences (the public cares not for lit reviews or methodology discussions).
  • Provide media with content/expertise
  • Engage–it can be a two way street, not just lecturing but interacting
  • Embrace academic freedom–who else can speak with few consequences?

The other panelists said smart stuff that I storify here.

Scariest News Today: China Edition

by Stephen M. Saideman

I am tempted to make this a daily feature: what have we learned about the Trump Administration on each day that scares us the most?  But that will be exhausting as Jon Stewart suggested on the Colbert Show.  Still, I think this might be a regular feature.  So, which is it for the last 24 hours?

Is it the spat with Australia?  No.  That is just stunning, since it is incredibly hard to screw up that relationship.  The Aussies are perhaps the people on the planet most like the Americans for a variety of reasons, and they still feel a keen debt for that World War II thing.  They have showed up in every American war, no matter how misguided, even when other allies will not (Vietnam, Iraq 2003).  But this does not quite scare me the most.

What does?  Learning that President Bannon, oh, I mean, Rasputin, oh I mean the Trump Whisperer believes that the US will be at war with China in the next ten years.  Why does this bother me so?  Holy self-fulfilling prophecy, Batman!  If one believes that war is inevitable, then one begins to behave in ways that make war more likely.  Instead of trying to avoid war, one tries to find the right moment, the most opportune time for oneself.  Oh, and since this is international relations, where the other side is aware and reacts, they start doing the same thing–making moves to put themselves in the best position to win.  Usually, this means figuring out how to land a decisive first blow.  Which means in a crisis, the US and China would be looking for opportunities to strike first and also fearing the first strikes of the other side, making it hard to manage the crisis.  Neither side would be as willing to play for time to figure a way out because, hey, war’s gonna happen.

Whether it is the US launching a preemptive attack to hit Chinese forces before they hit American bases in the region or China launches first to hit American bases and ships in the area (sorry, Japan),  it is easy to imagine the fears of first strikes and how exaggerated they become when war is seen as inevitable.

Yes, this screams to the IR scholar World War I.  There is much controversy about the historiography of that war, but one thing that did operate at the time–the sense that war was inevitable, which encouraged all kinds of behavior that led to the war.  So, yes, IR scholars are extremely nervous right now.  The informal discussion revolves around the question of which war comes first: Mexico, Iran, or China.  As it stands, I would prefer the first two wars to the third, which again reminds me of how low our expectations have become, thanks to Donnie Trump.

Returning to Bannon, he probably doesn’t mind a war or two, perhaps would not even mind the US losing a war with China, as his main goal is to break the United States in pretty much every way so that he can usher forth a New Order with white nationalists running everything (into the ground).

So, yeah, I am scared.  How are you doing?