Public Opinion and Interventions Abroad

By Jean-Christophe Boucher and Kim Richard Nossal

Does public opinion influence Canadian decisions on interventions abroad? Do policy-makers pay attention to what ordinary Canadians think when they decide whether to commit the Canadian Armed Forces to overseas missions?

Two recent interventions—Canada’s long mission in Afghanistan and the current operation against the forces of Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, also known as ISIS, Islamic State in Iraq and al-Shām)—provide an excellent opportunity to test the impact of the Canadian public on issues of war and peace.

In the case of Afghanistan, as we show in our chapter in Canada Among Nations 2015, public opinion was generally strongly opposed to the Canadian mission, but policy-makers in Ottawa largely ignored the opposition being expressed by the public: they refused to bring the troops home, and indeed maintained the mission until 2014, when much of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization forces were leaving. Indeed, the governing Conservatives and the opposition Liberals conspired with one another to take the Afghanistan mission off the domestic political agenda.

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Tag, You’re It: Canada’s Fuzzy Iraq Mission

By Steve Saideman

The debate of the past 48 hours about what the Canadian Special Operations Forces [CANSOF] are doing in Iraq is partially repeating the confusions of September.  The CANSOF were sent to advise and assist the Iraqis (seems to be primarily the Kurds).  Canada then sent planes–to drop bombs, to refuel their planes and others and to do reconnaissance.  While the two opposition parties opposed the deployment, they cannot do much both because they do not have enough votes and because the Canadian Parliament does not have authority to do anything–tis all the prerogative of the Crown (thanks, Phil!).

Anyhow, the reality is that Canada is engaged in bombing targets in Iraq along with its allies.  To engage in accurate bombing of moving targets, having someone on the ground “tag” the targets via a laser designator is pretty much required in the 21st century.  Especially if you want to minimize mistakes–hitting civilians.  Indeed, the most controversial bombing in Afghanistan was where the Germans claimed to have eyes on the target but did not, which led to more than a hundred civilians being killed.

Alas, we are stuck in a definitional mess about what is combat and what is not combat.  But the larger issue is that if we want the CF-18s to do their job, we need to rely on folks on the ground to help out in the targeting.  Outsiders can train the Iraqis to do this, but it is not an instant, easy lesson apparently.  So who gets to do the tagging? As it turns out, Canada does (and maybe the British and Aussies, so far the Americans are saying they are not doing it).

This does mean more risk than just hanging out far behind the lines, which means a firefight that happened last week.  But that is why SOF are sent, rather than conventional forces–they are better trained, better equipped and more experienced (hence the Special).  This means you can offset or mitigate the risks–there are more risks but you are sending the best folks who can operate in ways that reduce the risks (the Canadian snipers that seemed to end the firefight pretty quickly from what the reports suggest).

The key is this: sending CF-18s meant that Canada was doing combat.  It wants to avoid sending larger numbers of troops to do ground combat–that this is not Kandahar.  But there are boots on the ground doing stuff very related to combat–designating targets, advising at the front.  These books are worn by SOF, so the risks are less and we don’t think of them as boots on the ground.  The government is trying to have it both ways–that there is no ground combat but Canada is engaged in a kinetic air campaign.  That creates the muddled confusion.

To be clear, I am fine with Canadian SOF enabling the air campaign (aha, the army guys are enablers!), as the Iraqis are not yet ready to do that work apparently.  I would rather have the CF-18s  (and our allies) hit the targets than miss–both to be more effective and produce fewer civilian casualties.  I am not fine with the idea that Canadians should avoid the front entirely, as this would put real limits on the ability to advise and assist those who are facing ISIS/ISIL/Daesh.

The line should have been drawn not between ground combat and no ground combat but between combat and conventional offensive military operations.  But too late for the government to undo their rhetoric of the fall.

Shuffle Up and Deal: Veteran’s Affairs Edition

By Steve Saideman

In October, I argued that hawks in Canada have a problem–the party that would seem to be their friend has been cutting various programs, harming the readiness of the Canadian Forces and undermining the services for the veterans.  Where could such folks go?  Could they find a party that might support their interests more?   My answer then: probably not.  That the Liberals would more likely pander to NDP voters than to Tory voters, so that it was unlikely that they would advocate for more defence spending.

The good news for the Liberals is that the repeated coverage of poor stances on Veterans Affairs has provided an opening.  Harper turfed his Minister of Veterans Affairs, Julian Fantino, sending him to be Associate Minister of Defence, responsible for Arctic Security, information technology secuirty and foreign intelligence.  Am I reading too much into this to read it as Fantino being sent to equivalent of Nome, Alaska or Greenland?  That is where the US military sends folks who are out of favor (the best equivalent to the Hogan’s Heroes threat of the “Russian Front”).  Arctic Security is not just a metaphor for a distant area of responsibility (feels mighty close with the super-cold temps this week), but a failed portfolio–that the government’s commitment to the Canada First Defence

Strategy and a focus on Arctic Sovereignty has produced exactly nada, nil, zilch, zero, zip.  Info tech security?  Only will be in the news if there is some kind of cyber security failure.  Foreign intel portfolio?  Sshhh!  Again, only in the news if something goes awry–a Canadian Snowden or Ames or something like that.

So, things are looking great for the Liberals, eh?  Well, this piece in yesterday’s Ottawa Citizen suggests that the Liberals are going to aim at dis-affected hawks via these candidates with military experience.  The thing about this piece is it makes the Liberal attempt look kind of lame.  I have heaps of respect for Lt. Gen. (ret.) Andrew Leslie, but there is really nothing in the piece about what the Liberals might to run the military or veterans affairs better.  More money?  Where would that come from?  Cancel the F-35 and then do what?  The Liberal history of cancelling programs is chock full of glory?  Not so much.  The Liberals can claim that this government is starving the military (which it kind of is, even as it limits the real choices the military could make to ease the pain of the cuts), but the Liberals starved the military pretty well in its not so distant past.  And Trudeau’s stances last fall on Iraq suggested that he needs to listen to Leslie and pals much more closely so that he does not step on himself.

Still, firing one’s ministers and sending them to the Russian front are a signal that Harper is concerned about that portfolio and seeking to fix it before the election season really heats up.  Will we see any better performance on Defence and Vets issues in the new year?  I doubt it, as again it would require making choices.  And there is no real need to do that since Harper knows that the hawks have limited choices indeed.

Bombing Iraq 101: A primer on Canada’s action

By Steve Saideman

Now that Canada has dropped its first ordnance on Iraq since 1991, people have many questions, so let this post serve as a Frequently Asked Questions for what we know of the mission at the moment.

Q: What have Canadian CF-18s hit?

A: No official answer thus far although since Minister of National Defence Robert Nicholson mentioned Fallujah, although it appears that Monday’s Fallujah airstrikes hit equipment used to build defenses—bulldozers and trucks. Not exactly the normal targets of an air campaign, but it serves to prevent ISIL from preparing its defenses.

Q: Are Canada’s CF-18’s up to the task?

A: There was a report critical of the Canadian armaments, not so much the planes themselves. That is, Canada’s first bombs were laser-guided, which do not work well when it is cloudy. On the other hand, these kinds of bombs are better against moving targets. And many of the targets in Iraq will be moving. Indeed, the various officials have made clear this time that Canada is hitting both dynamic (moving) targets and deliberate (fixed) targets. In Libya, some countries would only attack fixed targets that could be vetted by lawyers and others before the pilots took off. There and here, Canadian pilots have more flexibility.

Q: Canada launched air strikes for several days but returned without dropping bombs.

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Message Mismanagement

By Steve Saideman

I have long argued that two key priorities have shaped Stephen Harper’s defence policies over the past several years: a balanced budget in 2015 and message management. Anyone interacting with government officials can tell stories about the climate of fear that exists there. That fear isn’t so much about policy being screwed up as it is about saying something aloud that the media might report.

Military missions pose significant risks to message management for two reasons. One, the mission itself can go awry. Two, larger missions mean more interactions with the media. It’s this second issue that this government seems more concerned with. Embedding reporters with thousands of soldiers is a nightmare for anyone seeking to control the messaging.[1] This is one reason why Canada’s deployments since Kandahar have been very restricted in size and scope.

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The hawk’s dilemma

By Steve Saideman

In today’s Globe and Mail, Jack Granatstein, one of Canada’s foremost military historians and big fan of the Canadian Forces, wrote that the Conservative’s treatment of the military is causing him to vote for someone else next time.

Harper has lost a hawk despite his rhetoric about defense, his celebration of the Royal past of the CF, the focus on the glorious War of 1812. Why? Because Canada is spending less today, after adjusting for inflation than when Harper came into power. Perhaps not every procurement project is a disaster – but pretty much all of the big ones. Each year, the government announces that it has not spent all of the money budgeted for the military since the procurement programs are behind… and by coincidence ;) this makes it easier to reach a balanced budget.

My personal bugaboo has been the refusal to cut the size of the forces. If the dollars are going down, how about cutting personnel since they are a very big percentage of defence spending? No, Harper wants the numbers of personnel to stay the same so he can claim that he expanded the military. But if the personnel numbers do not go down, then cuts will have to come from elsewhere – operations (oops, mideast stuff is going to make this hard) and maintenance. Nobody here uses the American phrase “hollow force” but perhaps that is a matter of time.

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Ottawa Delays the F-35 Decision. Should We Be Worried?

By Steve Saideman

The Globe and Mail reported that Prime Minister Stephen Harper has withdrawn the F-35 from the agenda of a recent meeting of the cabinet’s committee on planning and priorities. A skeptic might suggest this is part of a larger effort to delay the big decision until after the next election, and yes, I am that skeptic. I got some pushback from Philippe Lagassé, who served on the panel that evaluated the evaluation process, as he suggested this might mean that this merely gives the relevant cabinet officials more time to take seriously the work done thus far. So, this might just be my confirmation bias at work.

Why am I skeptical? The pattern of Harper decisions over the past several years has tended to suggest that more/better information is usually not a key ingredient in decision-making nor is consultation with the rest of Cabinet. When Harper decided in 2010 to send the 900-person CF mission to help train the Afghans from 2011 to 2014, this was news to NATO. The decision was also made almost entirely without advice from the Canadian military. More recently, when the panel of scientists came out with the map that should be the basis of Canadian claims to the Arctic, Harper asked them to revise their work as the claims were not expansive enough.

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A 21st Century Military Doesn’t Start at Home

Today, the Ministers of National Defence and of Public Works announced a new approach to Canadian defence procurement.  Given the track record of the recent (and not so recent) past, it is clear that Canada desperately needs to reform how it buys equipment for the Canadian Forces.  The efforts to “re-capitalize” the CF have thus far produced more controversy than new planes, ships, vehicles, and other kit.  Since the Department of National Defence has not worked so well in this area, it does make some sense to move it to Public Works although it is not clear that Public Works has a stellar record.  Subsequently, more oversight from a team of Ministers makes a great deal of sense.

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Militaries Don’t Start Wars, Politicians Do

Over the weekend, the Globe and Mail’s Doug Saunders issued a call for caution in light of recent events in the East China Sea and in Iran: that militaries may push civilians into unwanted and lengthy conflicts.  Using lessons gleaned from the experiences of the First World War, Saunders rightly notes that militaries lacking oversight can provide civilians with so few options that war seems like the only choice.

The problem is that he then extends his analysis to Afghanistan, a war where the timetables were so very clearly driven by politics in Kabul, in Brussels, in Washington, and in Ottawa.  Since the First World War, so much has changed in civil-military relations that it is now very difficult for the militaries of advanced democracies to push their countries into war, despite the myths about the Kandahar decision that continue to resonate in Canada.

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Why the Conservatives Can Cut the Size of the Military and Get Away With It

The Chief of the Defence Staff, Tom Lawson, has now allowed that efforts to cut the military’s budget could include personnel cuts.  Given that personnel expenses are one of the biggest categories of spending, this makes a great deal of sense.  Cutting the budget without cutting numbers or big ticket items like planes and ships would mean very deep cuts into operations, training, and maintenance.  Canadians don’t use the phrase “hollowing out the force” like Americans do, but the principle is the same – if you do not spend on the practice of war, then the military will lose their edge in this at its very dangerous business.

The government has been most reluctant to consider personnel cuts, saying that it can save money without reducing troop numbers.  Of course, this fits into a larger pattern of denial, it is not necessary or advantageous in this case.  This recent article on personnel cuts suggests that there are political risks in moving away from the magic numbers to which Harper has committed.  I frankly do not see how this is the case.

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