Wednesday, June 22, 2011

By Jove, We Have a Crisis in Civ-Mil Relations

Usually, when we think of crises in civilian-military relations, two possibilities come to mind: a coup someplace or the American military and civilians are not getting along.  But now we have the Brits doing a very nice imitation of a classic US civ-mil crisis.

We now have British naval, air and army leaders making assessments about current missions that are at odds with the messaging of the British government.  Heads of the Royal Navy and the Royal Air Force have indicated that fighting two wars is unsustainable with current capabilities and budgets. 

Prime Minister David Cameron:
"angrily told RAF and Navy chiefs who questioned the mission in Libya: “You do the fighting, I’ll do the talking.”

And now,
General Sir Peter Wall, the Chief of the General Staff, suggests in a television programme that Mr Cameron’s 2015 “deadline” to end combat operations [in Afghanistan] could slip.
Is this inappropriate?  Depends.  It seems to be the case that the officers are taking their cases to members of parliament and the press rather than to the Prime Minister:
Mr Cameron is understood to be particularly unhappy that some of the military concerns expressed about Libya to MPs and the media have not been raised with him. A senior source said: “In some ways, it’s a good thing that the chiefs are prepared to stand up to ministers and aren’t just 'Yes’ men. But it would be much more helpful if they did it in private instead of in the papers and in Parliament.”
But it is more complex than that.  There are at least two ways to look at this conversation amid deep cuts in the defence budgets (and in all other budgets):
  1. The military is upset about the budget cuts and is using these events to demonstrate that the cuts, made deeply and bluntly, have a significant impact on British standing in the world.  Thus, the crisis du jour is really about the military being opportunistic.
  2. Given how the cuts in the budget were made, the military has learned that Cameron makes decisions without taking seriously the advice they give him, and thus have learned that they must go outside of the normal procedures to have any impact.  So, the crisis is not so much about the military whining about a loss in £'s but the military feeling that the Prime Minister neither understands their concerns nor cares about them. 
Which one is it?  Probably a bit of both, but Cameron does seem to be reacting quite poorly, as the division of labor he proposes (military fights, he speaks) raises the question of whose job is it do the thinking?  To be clear, having a crappy leader (not saying Cameron is or isn't) is no excuse for military leaders to run amok.  However, in the first case, the Admiral was talking to members of parliament (despite Westminister systems having poor oversight over their militaries)* and should be speaking what he considers to be the truth.  But it is quite clear that there is a crisis in civil-military relations here in that both sides have lost confidence in the other. **
* One of my projects, on a backburner, is considering how British-style parliaments do oversight over their militaries. 
**  Of course, I am no expert on British civ-mil relations, so I could be wrong.
The timing here is most interesting, as the US may be seeing a bit of a storm brewing over how much Obama should be reducing the forces in Afghanistan and how quickly.  The difference: the storm is likely to be as much or more within the US military as between the military and the President.  For much of the American armed forces, Afghanistan is not a high priority, and they would like to get on with the job of preparing for the next big war (with China).  I will be writing more about the big US decision after Obama's speech tonight rather than speculating wildly now.  Instead, I am wildly speculating about the Brits.


Robin Brown said...


The political context is that we have had a decade of fighting on two fronts without the rise in spending that has happened in the US. We now have a new war and a new round of defence cuts.

On top of this it is pretty clear that the UK has a problem with strategy. Last year the UK Parliamentary Select Committee on Public Administration did a report on Who Does UK Strategy? Answer: Nobody

It looks like you are on the right track by asking who does the thinking.

Phil L said...

Er, who has poor oversight over the military? The MPs whose jobs isnt to oversee the military but rather the government? Or the government whose job it actually is to keep an eye on the military?

Steve Saideman said...

MPs in non-British parliaments do oversight. British style parliaments trust their governments. Their mistake. We will keep having this argument, Mr. Crown. Until your new child keeps you too comatose to post.

Anonymous said...

Oh boy, I dont even know how to respond to that one. I'll just say that there is no government unless MPs express confidence in one.

Steve Saideman said...

Ok, how about the old Reagan line? Trust but verify? After all, what is the Canadian parl's investigation into detainees if it is not oversight?

Phil said...

Right. But in practice that means opposition MPs holding the government to account. Not all party MPs attempting to oversee the military directly. T'is the nature of the system.

Steve Saideman said...

But that system sucks. If the opposition does not know what is going on, it cannot hold folks to account. If the backbenchers of the party in govt have no ability to know what is going on, they cannot hold their party leaders to account.

You may say this is the way the system is, but I can say it sucks. Yep, an advanced academic term to describe the status quo.

I am not saying that the US way is better. I am saying that non-British systems are better. In Denmark and Holland, their parliaments have committees that do oversight.

Of course, it is my American training/birth/identity/whatever that drives this--I don't trust the executive. I do not think legislatures should micro-manage military campaigns, but they should have the ability (via committees with clearances and closed meetings) to know what is going on. It does mean that they cannot speak about such stuff directly, but the Danes, Dutch, and others manage.

Phil said...

Im not saying the system is perfect or even all that good either. But it has to be understood on its own terms. Otherwise, we end up with impractical reform proposals or simply saying "well, this sucks." If we acknowledge the system, its advantages, and its limitations, then we can arrive at practical reforms proposals.

Also, it's important to note that Westminster systems have fairly robust intra-executive oversight mechanisms. These need to be acknowledged too. If we only look at executive/legislative relations, we miss this other important angle.

All this to say, I think we actually agree on a lot. I'd like to see a major reform of Canada's national security legislation and the creation of a standing committee armed with security clearance. But, as the detainee situatioon makes clear, that can only take you so far. In the end, it's the CF's own oversight committees, officers of Parliament, and the intra executive mechanisms that do the day to day oversight, while opposition MPs are there to highlight major problems and put pressure on the govt to create a public inquiry or royal commission a la Somalia.