Saturday, June 24, 2017

Sniping, Combat and Civilian Control of the Military

I hinted at some politics when discussing the longest recorded sniper shot in history.  That the Liberal government might not love this news because it would remind folks that there are Canadians engaged in combat in Iraq.  And now, ta da:
In a letter Friday to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, [NDP leader Thomas] Mulcair says the incident "seriously calls into question your government's claim that Canadian forces are not involved in direct combat in Iraq."
"Will you now confirm that Canadian troops have engaged in ground combat since your government took office?" he wrote. "Why have you not declared that the current military operation is now a combat mission? Why has there been no debate in the House of Commons regarding this change of mission?"
As I tweeted last night, Mulcair is both right and wrong on this stuff. 

Wrong? Because this government and the prior one have already said that they would allow the limited use of force in defense of Canadian troops and of their allies.  One shot, one kill (although we don't know how many attempted shots were taken) is about as limited a use of force that one can deploy.  Had the Canadian Special Operations Forces [CANSOF] called in an airstrike, it would not have been news (painting targets is so last year in terms of controversies), but it would have been more destructive.  Sure, it sounds offensive to shoot somebody 3.5 kilometers (or 6 CN towers or 58 hockey rinks) away, but it appears to be the case that a pre-emptive effort did .... pre-empt an attack.  While folks can argue whether pre-emption is defensive or not as much as they would like, on the battlefield, shooting first is definitely preferable to shooting second.  So, I don't have any quibbles or qualms about this.

Right? Because the government partially created this trap they have fallen into.  That is, the Liberals said that this is not a combat mission yet troops are killing and being killed.  This is something that many democracies now do--try to minimize the effort, inevitably creating a credibility gap.  The truth of the matter is CANSOF do not seem to be engaged in regular, continued, conventional combat operations, but they are frequently in a position where they are at risk and may have to use force.  The government could have done a better job of defining this, just as the previous government should have, so that criticisms like Mulcair's have less substance.

The bigger problem, something that Mulcair probably does not want to discuss, is that this kind of shallow discussion of what is and is not combat covers up for an ugly reality in Canadian politics: the opposition really does not know what is going on and there are only two elected people in Canada who do know what is going on--the Prime Minister and the Defence Minister. 
As Phil and I argue, it pays off more in Canadian politics (and elsewhere as our project with Dave is proving) to be deliberately ignorant but be able to speak a lot than to know much and oversee carefully.  The NDP can try to paint the Liberals as hawks and liars to get those lost NDP voters without having to seriously consider how they would act while in power and without having any responsibility of knowing what they are talking about. Woot!
The new Security oversight committee may have the ability to get information about CANSOF operations, but I doubt that it will, as the entire focus of that reform has been on intel gathering.  As a result, we are stuck with dumb debates, a blind opposition, and occasional bursts of silliness.

While our project is not complete, my bias going into it is that I think that governments and militaries would act better knowing that their secret stuff would be known by a select group of politicians--both backbenchers in the governing party and opposition members--so they anticipate and avoid doing things that are illegal, unwise, or deservedly unpopular (we can unpack that category some other time).  So far, I have not yet seen in other countries (Brazil, Japan for me; Australia, New Zealand, France for Phil; various Nordic countries for Dave) that ignorance is bliss.  That is, less oversight is less oversight, and while it might seem desirable if we define oversight as micromanagement, it actually is not good for civilian control of the military and it is not good for military effectiveness and efficiency.  In sum, NOT GOOD.

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