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.
Sajjan is now a politician and not a military officer. We tend to view politicians having more liberties with the truth than military officers, including defense ministers/secretaries. So, the sin of lying by Sajjan is not as grievous now as it would have been if he had lied to his commanders or subordinates. Still, this is now a political problem that the opposition will have much fun playing with. Will Sajjan lose effectiveness because of this crisis? That depends on whether you think Sajjan has been effective thus far. And that is where the problem really lies.
How effective has Sajjan been thus far? The answer to that partly depends on the eventual release of the Defence Policy Review, but his decisions thus far have been slow and problematic. The most visible one has been the effort to buy Super Hornets as an interim solution, rather than commit to the F-35 buy or a competition now for that next fighter plane purchase. Other procurement decisions have been delayed as well, and delays increase costs. In terms of what the CAF is actually doing in the field, Sajjan has been mostly fine. Sure, he got stuck with the combat but not combat thing that seems to hit all leaders who are involved in reassuring publics that the democracies are not in Iraq to do conventional war. The big challenge ahead for the CAF in Iraq is what to do after the Mosul operation, and delays on those decisions have probably limited Canadian options.
All this is to suggest that Sajjan is vulnerable because he has not been that effective. I doubt he will get fired soon, but he may get shuffled to a new position this summer.
Is this a crisis in Canadian civil-military relations? Sure, because any time it seems like the military is criticizing the Minister of Defence, we can call it a crisis. But it is not a stark one and probably a temporary one. It is certainly not the place for soldiers to call for the firing/resignation of their defense ministers, and all we have is retired officers on the record and maybe some active soldiers off the record.
The big problem here as I hinted above is that putting a recently retired officer in charge of the military creates the perception that the Minister of Defence is going to be an ally of the armed forces. This is a problem since the job of the Minister is to do most of the oversight over the CAF. The Prime Minister is too busy with other stuff. The parliamentarians don’t see oversight as their job–they see their job as holding the Minister to account. There is no other elected official in Canada (and in many other democracies) who has the information necessary to oversee the armed forces. So, the Minister should not be buddies with the armed forces nor should he be seen as such. Yet the government made a big deal of picking a “badass” who might just be friends with his former crewmates. Which creates expectations that not only cannot be met but should not be met.
The other big problem is that this episode will give the opposition an easy but empty issue to play with. Lying or not about something that happened eleven years ago is really not that important compared to whether Canada is buying the most appropriate military equipment, whether enough money is being spent on operations/training/maintenance (there is no lobby pushing for that rather than spending on equipment (contractors as lobbyists) or personnel (retired soldiers as lobbyists). But the built-in dysfunction in this political system is that it is far easier to focus on style and flash and not substance.
Is it a problem that the Defence Minister exaggerated or lied about his role long ago? Sure. Is it the most important thing going on today in Canadian defence? Far from it. Not a sexy line for the radio apparently, but true nonetheless.
* I have heard mixed reviews about the planning of Op Medusa. Yes, it did clear out the Taliban from posing a threat to Kandahar City, but some people I have talked to over the years did not have a high opinion of General Fraser’s tactics during the operation. The criticism is that the effort was needlessly costly to Canadians because Fraser (and other architects?) did not adapt their plan once the Taliban sprung their own ambushes. However, I do not really know enough to adjudicate the competing claims. I am just reporting that there are competing claims. And not “the earth is not warming” kind of competing claims.