Crisis in US Civil-Military Relations? Not Yet

by Stephen M. Saideman

Yep, no process, no policy, no implementation.  I wrote yesterday that Trump’s transgender in the military “policy” would depend on how the military would feel about implementation.  Well, from the very top, the attitude is: wait and see.  More than that: a smidge of contempt seems to be in the reaction:

Dunford has informed service
members that there will be “no modifications to the current policy until
the President’s direction has been received by the Secretary of Defense
and the Secretary has issued implementation guidelines.”

“In the meantime, we will continue to treat all of our personnel with
respect,
” Dunford wrote in a memo to the military that was obtained by
CNN. “As importantly, given the current fight and the challenges we
face, we will all remain focused on accomplishing our assigned
missions.”CNN (I would have cited NYT but they don’t let me cut and paste!)

If Dunford were General (ret.) Kelly of Homeland Security, he might have taken the tweet and ran with it, as Kelly enforced an immigrant ban with very little backing it up.  Dunford, like the other active senior officers, has opposed kicking transgender people out even as they hem and haw on how to deal with recruiting.  So, this agent has preferences that are distinct from the principal and, as a result, does not imagine what the tweet actually means, but instead asks for the paperwork to be done.

And, yes, DC runs on paperwork …. or Word docs shipped around town as attachments to emails (yes, on the classified servers mostly).  Since Mattis has thus far been silent (did he say anything while I was at Costco?), Dunford went ahead and interpreted how far he could go and went pretty far.  I had some responses on twitter asking for him to do more.  Such folks don’t understand civil-military relations–that civilian control of the military means that the civilians have the right to be wrong (which they are here), that the military must obey clear orders.  But they can fudge implementation if the orders are not clear or are not handed down through the chain of command.  Dunford could have started a process to weed out the transgender soldiers, sailors, marines and aviators, but chose not to do so.  This is kind of a work-to-rule thing, where resistance of this form is merely following the rules.  Trump would need to find another general who is more enthused about discrimination to get faster action.  Firing a Chairman for this?  Unlikely.

Finally, it is good to see someone indicate that a tweet may be a policy direction but is not a policy itself.

Public Critics vs Informed Monitors: The Parliament and Overseeing the Canadian Armed Forces

by Steve Saideman

I am mighty pleased that the first piece of the Phil/Dave/Steve project on legislatures and oversight over the armed forces of the world’s democracies is now published: “Public critic or secretive monitor: party objectives and legislative oversight of the military in Canada.”  The big question, of course, is how did a paper on Canada get into West European Politics?  The answer: tis part of a special issue on executive-legislative relations and foreign/defence policy.

Our entire SSHRC-funded project started with me being puzzled, driven by my growing up in the US: what do you mean, the defence committees of the Canadian Parliament do not have security clearances?  That they cannot see the secret stuff and ask generals/admirals about operations?  If the legislators don’t have access to classified info, then how can they hold the executive to account?  Information is EVERYTHING in principal-agency theory–that information asymmetries mean that agents can do more or less than what the principals desire.  Usually, principals try to figure out ways to overcome the asymmetry, but in Canada, not so much.  So, the paper ponders why parliamentarians would prefer to be a public critic (ignorant critic) rather than secretive monitor (informed overseer).

The answer focuses on how institutions and party politics focus parliamentarians not in good governance but on point-scoring.  We use the Afghanistan detainee controversy to figure out this puzzle, ultimately realizing that politicians doing oversight behind closed doors get little political advantage while shouting in parliament, with or without good info, is viewed as better for the next election.

Why is this relevant today?  The Liberals came into power seeking to create some oversight over the secret stuff, giving some parliamentarians some access to the secrets.  However, this new body does not really fix the problem that we identify (our comparative project aims to understand not just the attitudes towards oversight but the effects of different forms, so perhaps Canada is not so problematic).  Why not?  First, as Phil has written elsewhere, it is not a parliamentary committee–the real principal for this new committee is not the Canadian Parliament but the Prime Minister who can restrict access to information quite easily.  Second, the focus of the entire discussion has been on surveillance/intel and not on military operations.  This body is not going to be overseeing the Canadian Armed Forces, so the only elected officials in Canada that have any clue about what secret stuff the CAF is doing are the Prime Minister and Defence Minister.

For me, that is problematic.  Why?  If war is too important to be left to the generals, as Clemenceau said amid the increasing piles of bodies coming home in World War I, then democratic oversight of the military is too important to be left to the executive. Why?  Because Presidents/Prime Ministers/Ministers and Secretaries of Defence have incentives to hide mistakes (Abu Ghraib anyone?) and also might be tempted to use the military secretly in ways that are either unlawful or unwise.

Living in Canada made me realize that not every country has multiple Armed Services Committees who are tasked by the greater legislative body to oversee the deployment of the armed forces.  Indeed, it may be that the US is very exceptional (and Congressional oversight may be lacking these days due to polarization, with show trials like the Benghazi hearings replacing real oversight).  Yes, other countries have legislatures that can and do vote about whether to deploy or not, but the question for us is: what next?  Do these bodies follow through and see that their intent, their limitations, their caveats are adhered to?  Not so sure, so the work continues.

Parliament should scrutinize, not have a say, on military deployments

 

by Philippe Lagassé

What role should Parliament play in military deployments? The question has come up again owing to the Trudeau government’s pledge to deploy the Canadian Armed Forces on a UN peace operation.

Although they only held votes in the House of Commons for combat missions, the Conservatives are demanding a vote for this new operation. The NDP, meanwhile, tends to call for votes whenever there’s a whiff of controversy or danger surrounding a deployment. The Liberals have never been strong advocates of holding such votes, though they did hold one earlier this year for their revamped mission to Iraq.

Bureaucrats may have warned the Trudeau government that extending this practice to peace operations could unduly constrain the executive in the future, and the Liberals are doubtlessly aware that they have a limited number of sitting days to devote to their legislative agenda. Given the success they had in using a wholly symbolic vote to box in the Conservatives on the Paris Accord, however, we shouldn’t be surprised if the Prime Minister’s Office decides that a vote on the UN operation could be equally advantageous.

Pundits, for their part, are in favour of having the Commons vote on the new mission. There’s no risk that the government will lose the vote owing to the Liberal majority, the official opposition has been calling for it, and asking to House to support military deployments gives off a warm and fuzzy democratic feeling, despite the fact that it’s not binding or necessary. (Bonus: the vote makes good political theatre on a slow news day.)

The votes come with downsides, however. When the opposition votes in favour of a military deployment, their ability to hold the government to account is dulled afterwards. Dulled doesn’t mean it disappears, but it makes the opposition’s job harder; the government can use the vote to deflect questions and criticisms, and it’s more difficult to critique something you previously supported. As a result, votes tend to end parliamentary debate about a military deployment until it’s time to hold another one.

The government can also use the votes to sow confusion about who should be held to account if the mission runs into difficulties. Rather than accepting responsibility for the decision, the government can declare that it was simply following the ‘will of the House’. A crafty government, moreover, can use the votes to give the impression that Parliament is responsible for the decision, laundering the constitutional accountability of ministers through the legislature (see chapter 3 here.)

These concerns are lessened when the opposition votes against a deployment. When the government-opposition dynamic is respected, the opposition is better placed to question the mission and the government has a harder time trying to launder its responsibility and accountability.

Yet this is still not ideal. The vote forces the opposition parties to express a binary choice for or against a mission. In many cases, the factors are stake are more complex. For example, the opposition may support the mission’s objectives, but not how it’s being undertaken or the risks that the government is accepting.

As well, the government can use the votes to make the opposition look bad. If a vote is held on the new mission, chances are the government will be hoping the Conservatives will vote against it, allowing the Liberals to decry their lack of support for UN peace operations. With polls showing widespread support for the return to ‘peacekeeping’, this would be an attractive wedge issue for the Liberals –unless the operation goes sour, of course.

In spite of these negatives, the allure of holding military deployment votes is evident. Votes allow parliamentarians to express themselves on a matter of national importance and they raise awareness of what the Canadian military will be doing abroad.

Arguably, though, our focus on votes is taking attention away from other reforms that would give a Parliament larger role when the Canadian Armed Forces are sent overseas. The key to improving parliamentary involvement in matters of war and peace doesn’t lie in pretending that the House is a decision-making body. Rather we should leverage actual institutional Parliament function when it comes to matters of executive competence: a scrutinizing body.

Here are four steps we could take to enhance parliamentary scrutiny of military operations:

First, when the government has decided to deploy the military on an operation, the Prime Minister or Minister of National Defence should be required to provide the House with the mission objectives, anticipated threats and risks, the operation’s expected duration, detail of which units that will be deployed and their rules of engagement, the sustainability of the deployment and its effect on training and readiness, rough order of magnitude mission costs, and the legal justification of the operation. A substantive take note debate should then be held based on this information.

Next, the Standing Committee on National Defence (NDDN) should be tasked with overseeing the mission. Although it is good that senior commanders brief the media on the mission’s progress, appearing before NDDN alongside their minister should be their priority. The committee could also call upon outside experts and other witnesses to hear various perspectives and concerns about the mission. NDDN should then periodically report on the operation to the Commons, and the House should hold additional take note debates to discuss the committee’s findings and further question the government.

Third, once a mission has ended, the Senate Standing Committee on National Security and Defence should be tasked with reviewing the operation and producing a report on lessons learned. Benefiting from a less partisan and hurried working environment (in principle), the Senate committee report could provide Parliament’s assessment of the mission’s successes and failure, and what could be done to improve future operations.

Finally, the government could be required to respond to the Senate committee’s report, and include a summary of its own, internal lessons learned exercise.

Of course, none of these recommendations are incompatible with holding a vote. But the unintended consequences of holding a vote could arguably affect how well these other measures would fare. An opposition that votes in favour of the mission may be less rigorous in scrutinizing the operation at the committee level, while a divided House would likely make NDDN’s oversight a baldly partisan effort.

Either way, our focus on votes isn’t helping us find ways to veritably deepen Parliament’s involvement in holding the government to account for military operations. Instead of demanding that the House have a symbolic say on a predetermined government decision, let’s help Parliament scrutinize the executive.

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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Obama’s Civil-Military Relations

Interesting piece by Rosa Brooks about the tensions between Obama’s national security staff and the senior officers of the US military.  While I see many of the points raised by the retired and not so retired officers Brooks speaks with, I have to raise a red card and say, wait a minute.

There is this belief that the military is a super-hierarchical organization that follows orders and enforces compliance down the chain of command.  This is more than just a little bit exaggerated.  Here are some examples from the Afghanistan mission that suggest otherwise:

  • Obama’s 2009 decision to surge was aimed at limited population centric counter-insurgency, which meant focusing the effort and the surge where the Afghans lived.  While there is much I disagree with in Rajiv Chandrasekaran‘s Little America, it is clear that the US military did not concur with Obama on this and sent their troops where they felt like.  Specifically, the Marines surged into Helmand and not Kandahar.
    • The line in the book is that it was because the Canadians didn’t want help in Kandahar which is just simply bullshit.  I cannot say it any other way–Harper by 2009 was eager to drop the responsibility for Kandahar and the 2008 Manley Panel made extension of the mission contingent on getting more help. If this meant losing command of Kandahar, the Canadians would have been fine with that.

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The State of Civil-Military Relations After Afghanistan

I presented this week at the Kingston Conference on International Security about the state of civil-military relations in Canada and NATO as Afghanistan winds down (for the outsiders, not so much for those left behind). Because the Afghan conflict was the most intense warfare faced by most of the countries involved and endured for far longer than we might have expected of modern democracies, it will certainly shape the place of these militaries in their societies. Canada is hardly alone in this, although Canadians tend to think so. The long and dangerous engagement had both positive and negative effects on the relationships between civilians and the Canadian Forces, and these dynamics played out in similar ways elsewhere.

Before starting, we must remember that civil-military relations involve both society and the government on the civilian side, and we must keep in mind that the relationship is always dynamic. People tend to get upset when they see tensions, but not every dispute or conflict in perceptions is equal to a crisis.

So, how was Afghanistan the best of times for Canadian civil-military relations? The Canadian public has a better sense of the Canadian Forces than previously. The public has seen that the CF can perform well on the same battlefield as better-funded and bigger militaries such as the American and British armed forces. There are more realistic expectations – that the CF is trained to fight and not just act as peacekeepers. I remember early on being asked by members of the media whether the CF was trained to fight, and the answer was clearly yes. Because misperceptions can be a significant source of tensions, the greater clarity that came with seeing the CF in action has significantly improved the CF’s relationship with the public.

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