Friday, October 15, 2021

Getting Inside the Sausage-Making: A Chat with the Chief

[This post was written before the latest news about Lt.Gen Cadieu and Admiral McDonald]

I didn't expected to be doing this much writing/talking about the Canadian military when I moved to Canada twenty years ago.  My new title was Canada Research Chair in International Security and Ethnic Conflict, which was confusing since I was neither Canadian nor did I study Canada.  Over the course of time, and perhaps inevitably, both of those conditions changed.  I have been Canadian for six years as of this month, and my work on NATO and Canada's work in NATO led me to the study of Canadian defence politics.  My work moved from the IR of ethnic conflict to civil-military relations, with a very comparative focus.  Asking questions about Canada's role in Afghanistan ultimately led to a project on legislatures across the world's democracies and the role they play in civilian oversight over the armed forces.  

In that project on NATO in Afghanistan, I ended up interviewing many senior Canadian officers including the Chief of the Defence Staff at the time, Rick Hillier, the Vice Chief who would later become Chief, Walt Natynczyk, and Major General Jon Vance, who would later become chief.  I didn't interact with CDS Tom Lawson until deep into his tour when he gave an off-the-record chat at NPSIA.*  I never met Admiral Art McDonald who lasted four Scaramooches in that role [despite his desire to return, it will stay at forty or so days].  I  did meet then-LtGen  Chief Wayne Eyre at the Kingston International Security Conference when he was just returning from his tour in South Korea and was starting his role as Chief of the Army. We then had him and Deputy Minister Jody Thomas on our podcast this past spring.  In that podcast, both he and Thomas said that they listen to our podcast.  Which is pretty cool but really?

Apparently, really, as I got contacted a few days ago by his assistant to arrange a call to chat about stuff I had raised in the most recent episode (around the 14th minute mark).  So, we then chatted for about thirty minutes about the personnel issues that Stef and I discussed in the podcast and then some other stuff.  I basically suggested in the podcast that without civilian oversight, the CDS could just appoint whoever he wanted, and that it could produce an Old Boys Network, as has been rumored about Vance's decisions.  I keep pointing to the decision to give Vice Hadyn Admiral Edmundson the spot of heading the CAF's personnel command as emblematic because Edmundson had escaped any career-harming consequences from being accused of sexual assault years ago--his nickname of Mulligan Man came from that. I found that decision particularly problematic since navies are known for firing captains for running their ships into a rock--a one-time event, but assaulting one's staff is not a career destroyer?  Eyre could not speak to Edmundson's elevation to Chief of Personnel since Vance did that.

What Eyre could speak to are the changes in the process by which senior leaders are promoted and selected for specific jobs.  He and his staff put together a set of materials--past evaluations, psychometric testing that assess character, leadership, problem-solving skills, etc.  The evaluations of past performance are different now--the so-called 360 evaluations which involve not just superiors but peers and subordinates is no longer limited to ... those the candidate chooses.  That's right, if I understand General Eyre correctly, the old system was one where the candidate could choose whose evaluations would count in their promotion process.  Now, the very new process is anonymous, random, blind, and diverse, which should produce more accurate assessments.  A board, including civilians, take these reports and assessments to build a score that is compared with the scores of the others who are eligible, which then leads to pools of folks who are eligible for promotion and those who need more time in rank.  Is there a third pool of those who should be frozen or kicked out?  I should have asked that.  Anyhow, once the pool of promotable officers is determined, they figure out who is fit for which jobs, and then that package of information is given to the minister for approval.

And there is the question I really wanted to ask but knew the general could not answer: does the Minister actually read the packages or is it a rubber stamp?  "Is the Minister doing his job?" is not a question that the General would answer, so I didn't bother asking it.  

I then asked about the case of Major General Peter Dawe, who was given a new job once his suspension was over--one that was presented in the media as the person responsible for reading the reports from the various retired Supreme Court justices and vetting recommendations for how to reform the Canadian Armed Forces.  While averring that the media didn't quite get Dawe's new job right, Eyre admitted that he made mistakes in this process, that it should not have happened.  I compared this decision with that regarding Vice-Admiral Craig Baines, the chief of the navy who had played golf with disgraced former Chief of Defence Jon Vance.  That it was pretty clear that the Baines decision involved much consultation, and when it was made, Eyre explained it.  The Dawe decision was not transparent.  Part of this was that this all happened during the election period, where folks in government do not make big announcements.**  Both decisions attracted much fire, including from the Prime Minister and the Deputy Prime Minister.***  I think Eyre was on stronger ground with the first decision because he was able to explain it as it happened.  I do think that these cases are hard decisions as the CAF can't/won't/shouldn't fire every officer who has made a mistake.  Indeed, in our conversation, Eyre said that one of the issues he is giving to Lt.General Jennie Carignan, Chief of Professional Conduct (who was on the second episode of our podcast), is to figure out how to bring back some of the people who have done wrong.  There needs to be greater accountability.  Eyre taking the blame for this decision is a good step, but they need to do better--that Dawe could be given another leadership post but not one that involved sexual misconduct issues.

I hope that when Parliament returns that the Defence Committee holds a hearing where they can ask General Eyre about this decision.  I also hope that the Prime Minister selects a new person to be Defence Minister so that we can have more confidence in the civilians who should be overseeing Eyre.  I do think that Eyre got a mighty tough hand to play, given that his two immediate predecessors are, well, disgraced.  Eyre did not get a proper handover of this job, and he has been reacting to this crisis on the fly.  From our conversation, it is clear there are changes being made, but then, so are mistakes.  The changes that need to take place are multidimensional, have to take place at all levels, and involve a lot of different actors.  It involves legal reform (the Fish report), it involves changing the culture of the CAF (our Year Ahead conference will have a session dedicated to organizational change), it involves greater exercise of civilian control, and more.  

There is still a lot I don't know and don't understand.  One of the questions a new Defence Minister will have to face is whether to keep Eyre around as CDS.  I believed before this conversation that Eyre is trying hard to do the right things and should be given more time.  I also believed before this conversation that it was not clear that chucking Eyre would solve any problems and might deepen the ones they have--that there has been so much turmoil at the top of the CAF, that it is hard to make progress in any direction.  The Vice Chief position has changed about six times over the past five years or so--and the Vice Chief is the one who is supposed to administrate the CAF.  This chat has not changed my mind, but has probably increased my bias a bit.  I can't help but feel a bit favorably to a person who lets me see inside the tent.

Reaching out to the random loud academic may be part of an information operations campaign--to make the CAF look better.  But I am not sure I am a reliable messenger, as I can be pretty critical.  This does remind me of being part of a group of academics sent to Afghanistan in late 2007--was the effort to inform us or to shape the messaging?  And, the answer, of course, is both.  That if we understood the mission better, we might be more sympathetic and at least our criticisms would be better informed.  

Anyhow, I think I understand some of the processes better, but I am still very frustrated by the state of civilian control of the military in Canada.  It is not just on the military to think about this stuff or to be blamed when things go awry.

* Lawson didn't say anything of interest that day--for an off-the-record chat, it was pretty tightly scripted.

** I have always found this to be strange.  I once was invited to give a talk to replace the Canadian Consul General to Boston during an Afghanistan event in 2011 since it fell in during the election period.  Eyre made it clear that this year's election made communicating about the withdrawal from Afghanistan quite difficult.

*** My reaction each time Trudeau and Freeland criticize the military is to remind them that they have kept around a Defence Minister who does not see oversight of the CDS as being part of his job.  So, they have no one else to blame but themselves.

Monday, October 11, 2021

20th Early Turkey Day: Happy Thanksgiving, Canadians!

 Hard to believe but this is the 20th Canadian Thanskgiving for me and Mrs. Spew.  We still don't really know how to celebrate it--do we cook the big meal on Sunday or Monday?  I forget which day is the ones Canadians tend to use as their big family gathering.  Well, for us, this is mostly moot since we tend not to go anywhere and tend not to have anyone over as we have no family in Canada.  Heaps of friends, but no family, so it is not quite the same as the annual pilgrimage (pun intended) to my family every late November (we see my wife's family over winterfest when we are not constrained by a pandemic).  But the giving of thanks is a common thing, so what are my maple-flavored, beaver-tailed thanks for this year?

I am thankful for being part of GenX-AZ-Dolly--getting the cocktail of Astrazeneca and Moderna last spring/summer. The latest news suggests Canada, either by necessity, by strategy, or by luck, got the distribution of the vaccine right.  That having a long interval between first and second may produce better results than shorter intervals and that mixing works about as well as two doses of Pfizer or Moderna.  Sure, I complained a lot about the uncertainty and the mess that was the rollout, but being fully vaccinated has made things much better, if not normal.  For that, I give thanks to Canada for getting as many contracts with as many vax producers as possible--portfolio strategies work!

I am not thankful that Canadian federalism seems to be an obstacle to doing stuff smartly during a pandemic.  While federalism helped some states protect themselves a bit from Trump's decisions, in Canada, the Trumpists are mostly at the provincial level--Quebec, Ontario, Alberta, perhaps Manitoba and Saskatchewan.  These days, federalism is an obstacle to a national vaccine certificate/passport as the provinces own the vaccine data and don't share too easily.  Grrr.

I am thankful that the worst media crap in the US and resulting division of the country into reality-based and conspiracy-based communities does not have quite the same volume here.  Yes, Rand Paul, Naomi Wolf, and others have been the vectors for anti-vax bullshit, but it is muted.  Fox and its ilk don't have as much purchase here, so Canadians are highly vaxxed--86.6% of Canadians over 12 have received one dose and 81% of that group are fully vaccinated.  The anti-vaxxers got disproportionate media coverage during the election, but they are few.  They did cause the Conservatives to tie themselves into knots over how to promote vaccination without mandates, which probably hurt them quite a bit.  

I am thankful that the election was short, and, yes, that the Liberals won a minority.  Minority government is annoying--the government of the day has a ready excuse not to get stuff done and does have to do some compromising to get stff done.  The Liberals haven't governed spectacularly, so I am glad they were not rewarded for failing to deliver on several key files, including the one I obsess about--defence.  As of right now, we still have a Minister of National Defence who does not know how to do the job, so when things happen, the Prime Minister blames the generals rather than himself or his agent.  On the bright side, minority government means that the government of the day does not control the agendas of the parliamentary committees, so there is a bit more room for oversight.  Woot, eh?  

I am thankful to the vax for allowing me to start hanging out with my friends again.  We had our first dinners over at friends and our first poker game over the past couple of months.  They provided much solace and entertainment (thanks, Roland!).  We had our first family visit to Ottawa in years when my sister and her beau came up, forces us to go out to cool restaurants, and even dragged me on a hike.

I am grateful I got to go to the semi-final of the Canadian Cup--the tourney for the three professional ultimate teams in Canada who could not participate in the larger ultimate league due to covid.  Speaking of which, I am thankful for the great people at the physio place that I visit entirely too often these days.  I am hoping my next ultimate season is not cut short by an injury.

I am thankful to Nigella Lawson, Sally's Baking Addiction, and the NYT Cooking section for giving me much inspiration and clear roadmaps to sweet success.  The latest was apple crumb crostata for turkeyfest 2021:


It remains a brutal year--far too much death and disease, far too much hate sponsored/spread by nihilists (thanks, Tucker!), and all that.  But we are edging back to normalcy.  I hope when we get to our new normal that I remember to give thanks on a regular basis for all the folks who got us through this madness--the doctors, nurses, scientists, cooks and delivery people, clerks, and all the rest.

Oh, I am also thankful that this tenure review letter is not due until next month so it is not overdue yet.  But back to it.

 Happy Thanksgiving, Canada and Canadians!  




Wednesday, September 29, 2021

A Nearly Great Day in American Civil-Military Relations

There have been few good days in American civil-military relations lately, so we ought to celebrate them when they happen.  Yesterday was a very good day.   General Mark Milley, along with SecDef Lloyd Austin and General Ken McKenzie, testified about the end stages of the Afghanistan mission.  While senior military officers and the SecDef testifying should not be all that notable, both my current research project and recent events have made this one worthy not just of a blog post but heaps of news coverage.

First, as I am currently interviewing Canadian parliamentarians about legislative oversight, I can't help but notice a big, big difference: Milley and McKenzie were asked about their advice to the President.  While I don't expect the President to do everything the senior officers advise (in fact, I don't want the President just to do what they say all the time), we can better understand the President's decisions if we know what advice he got.  It also helps us evaluate the military if they give bad advice.  It also allows us to see the different mindsets.  McKenzie said something that all decisions to depart should be conditions-based, which is not how politics works--time matters.  

This reminds me of my time in the Joint Staff twenty years ago when officers tried to ensure that organized crime as a target (a key military task) would be kept out of the various plans for the Balkans since one could never satisfy that condition of eliminating organized crime AND the objective the US military at the time was getting out of the Balkans.

In Canada, the advice the Chief of Defence Staff gives to the Prime Minister is a cabinet confidence.  We can't know the input into the PM's decisions.  Sure, we can hold the PM accountable (sort of) via question period and all that, but if we don't know the inputs, it is hard to evaluate. 

Second, and more obviously, it was a very good day for civil-military relations as Milley made it clear to Senator Tom Cotton (more on that in a minute) that Milley sees his job as giving advice to the President, and, as long as he receives legal orders, Milley's job is to then obey even if the President doesn't follow his advice:

Milley made it clear that civilian control of the military is foundational, not something that can be challenged because the President does something he doesn't like.  This is not what Cotton wanted to hear (unless he was mostly setting up a Fox newsbite).

Milley also made it clear he was not acting outside of the chain of command when he told the Chinese military not to sweat things too much--that the US had no intentions to engage in a conflict during Trump's tantrum filled last days. 

Milley clearly has spent much time thinking about civilian control and the norms of civil-military relations since his mistakes in June 2020 during the protests in DC.  He is far from perfect, and his conversations with Bob Woodward could have been either sharper or non-existent.

The only real problem was that Tom Cotton exists.  That he has ridden his military experience to suggest he is an expert and that he is, alas, seen as a candidate for President or SecDef (his name was mentioned when Trump was looking for a SecDef).  Cotton is a fascist wannabe who has a Senate seat--which is not good for American governance.  

On the other hand, I was glad that Elizabeth Warren asked whether things would have been different if the US had left a year later.  I would have liked to have a question asked of McKenzie, who pushed the "2,500 could have stayed longer": ""General, say we kept 2,500 in Afghanistan despite our commitment to leave, do you think the Taliban would have just accepted that?" 

So, not a perfect day, but far better than what we have been used to.  If only these Senators grilled the officers and SecDef when Trump had made the Doha deal last year.

Sunday, September 26, 2021

Once Again, Canada Needs A New Defence Minister

 I talked to Amanda Connolly of Global News about the speculation regarding the next Defence Minister, and she asked what would keeping Sajjan around signal.  She only used part of my quote, so here's the longer version.

It would signal:

  1. The so-called Feminist government does not care about the situation of women in the CAF since Sajjan didn't pay attention to how the Deschamps Report was or was not implemented.
  2. The abuse of power crisis in the CAF (this whole thing has been as much about abusing power as it has been about sexual misconduct and, yes, the two are inextricably linked) would be exacerbated since the message would be that the MND not only tolerated the abuse of power but abused power himself (by not using his authorities).
  3. The Liberal government doesn't care about defence as it would be keeping a person in that position who does not know what the job entails and does not seem to be that interested in doing it.

Who should the next MND be?  I don't know.  Here are my guidelines:

  • Not a former senior military officer.  I used to say not general/admiral, but Sajjan indicates perhaps that Lieutenant Colonel may be too high up--too connected, too long in the service so the mindset is pretty fixed.  
  • Someone who has some experience running a department.  Defence is one of the toughest departments to run.  Learning on the job may mean getting played by folks in the building.  

Does it need to be a woman?  Not absolutely, but it would be a good idea.  It has been a very long time (nearly 30 years) since there was a woman in that spot--Kim Campbell--and she was the only.  It would have substantial as well as symbolic impact. [Update: see this article featuring smart women who know gender and the military stuff on the challenges of appointing a woman to clean up a man's mess]  However, there are other groups that have been historically excluded, and the CAF has problems with recruiting and retaining not just women but Indigeous people, visible minorities, and LGBTQ2S+.  

I don't know the Liberal bench well enough to say who would be best.  I just know who would be worst--keeping the status quo.

Monday, September 20, 2021

What I Still Don't Get (Ok, I kind of do)

 Exactly a year ago, I posted this, which enumerated much of what was going wrong with the pandemic response.  I didn't get why bars/restaurants being open was more important than figuring out schools and other parts of the economy. I didn't get why testing was so poor.  I didn't get why schools weren't prepared for the fall.  I didn't get why people couldn't wear masks over their noses.  A year later, there are lots of things that remain similar except I am not so confused.

  • I get why some places have been so slow to develop vaccine mandates.
  • I get why Ontario continues to screw up the schools.
  • I get why Ontario's testing is just as screwed as last year, and they have given up on tracing.   

 If you had a kid with symptoms today (I don't—knock wood—just keep checking this in anticipatory horror) right now you could not get a testing appointment in Ottawa until Wednesday afternoon. Minimum four days out of school. Same demand as this time last year.

 It turns out that there is a common answer to much of this: governance matters, and when one is governed by people who hate government, you get bad governance.  Jason Kenney and Doug Ford have stood out in Canada as the worst of the #incompetentmurderclowns.  I do think for Kenney it is probably more about pandering to the right wing of his party.  Ford?  I think it is less about ideology and more about laziness, hostility to experts, and to government.  I mean, Ontario has not spent the $2.7billion (in Canada, billion is a shit-ton of money) it got from the feds for pandemic response.  Ford wouldn't want to spend it on hiring contact tracers, on improving accessibility to vaccines, certainly not on sick pay for hourly workers, and not even on improving ventilation schools.  That testing still sucks is now deliberate negligence.  Last year, it could be written off as stupidity or the challenges of pandemic realities.  But we have had plenty of reports of unused tests.  It is not about supply chain problems, but that Ford simply doesn't want to do stuff.  

My friends who have kids are outraged, and they should be.  Delta is more dangerous to kids, and thanks to vaccination of adults, kids are now a primary vector of the pandemic.  So, there should have been much more effort to create better conditions for the kids.  Nope, not here and I guess not in Alberta.  

As I keep saying, it didn't have to be this way.  Yet, I fear that there are enough resentful voters who will keep voting for people who are hostile to government.  Why?  Because they want their services but they resent when government helps "others."  It certainly is not really about freedom since better responses earlier would have meant we would have more latitude now.  

Oh, and like my friend with kids, I am outraged.



Not Too Late To Make This Election More American

The final days of the 2021 election were bad for Canadian civil-military relations.  Sure, there has been a crisis since the winter due to the scandals surrounding retired Chief of Defence Staff General Jon Vance and his replacement Admiral Art McDonald, but things could and did get worse.  Two retired military officers endorsed the Conservative Party the weekend before the election: retired Vice-Admiral Mark Norman and retired General Rick Hillier.  Why is this problematic?  They are retired, so aren't they free to do what they want?  The short answer is: it implicates the Canadian military in electoral politics.

This mostly matters for the most senior retired officers and not for retired corporals or retired Captains or Majors.  Why?  Because those who have served at the highest levels are often seen as speaking for the active military folks.  So, whether they admit or not, retired Norman and retired Hillier are implying with their endorsements that the Canadian Armed Forces prefer the Conservative Party to govern Canada.  One could infer that they prefer the CPC since they are less likely to revise the existing pattern of civil-military relations where the CAF regulates itself with great autonomy.  One could infer that they prefer a divided governing party that might be easier to manipulate.  Not sure why they would want the CPC if they do not want spending cuts since the CPC talks a big game about deficits.  

One can infer a lot, but the big inference is that the military is taking a side in the partisan battles in Canada.  Yes, we understand that the military is always a political actor, as it can often make decisions or influence the decisions of others that affect collective outcomes.  But being a partisan actor is inherently problematic.  That distinction--political vs partisan--is what is at stake here  (Risa Brooks is my guide on this.  In modern democracy, we do not expect and we don't want the armed forces to be tipping the scales in favor of one party or another.  

And, alas, yes, this is Canada picking up a very unfortunate American trend. Remember the dueling generals in 2016 US presidential election at the two parties’ nominating conventions with retired Lt. Gen Michael Flynn (yes, that guy) chanting lock up Hillary Clinton and the Democrats putting retired General John Allen on the stage?  Over the past couple of decades, we started with a few and then a cascade of senior officers endorsing one party's candidate or the other's.  Other American officers, particularly retired and active Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, tried to encourage officers to stay outside of politics, but they were not heeded. 

One can argue that these retired senior officers are just private citizens, but they are clearly trading off of their former ranks and military connections.  Norman's endorsement was not a subtle indicator that he thinks that one party is better for the military and deserves the military's endorsement.  What will be the impact of this?  The public will start to see the military as partisan, and trust in it will vary depending on who is in power.    In the US, the military remains popular, but it is less trusted by Republicans when the Democrats are in power, and it is less trusted by Democrats when the Republicans are in power (I think I remember it from here and here). 

Conservatives can point to either Andrew Leslie who served in the Liberal Party or Romeo Dallaire who became a Senator (not sure how that counts given that Senators don't run for office, but I get it), forgetting that they also had Gordon O'Connor run for the CPC and then serve as a less than stellar Minister of National Defence. It may be better for these retired officers to run for office, because then they get to be seen as politicians and get asked tough questions, rather than just wearing their old rank and being seen as above the fray.

For the longest time, retired Canadian senior military officers, for the most part, did not engage in election endorsements.  They had self-restraint, but apparently restraint is gone.  The parties would do well to agree not to solicit these kinds of endorsements for the good of the military and for the good of the country, but, well, we are not naive.  So, we just must realize that we are now on this slippery slope, and it does not lead to a good place.  We can ask the media to ask pesky questions, like "Hey, retired Vice Admiral Norman, are you doing this out of spite?"  "Hey, retired General Rick Hillier, do you think the Conservative Party of Canada will handle the pandemic as poorly as the Conservative government of Doug Ford handled the Ontario pandemic for which you were so well paid?"

Because here's the thing: if you want to entry the political fray, expect return fire.  Don't expect that your old uniform is going to protect you from tough questions because partisans are fair game in ways that nonpartisan retired military officers are not. 


Saturday, September 11, 2021

Twenty Years Later: Let's Kill Green Lantern

For the 20th anniversary of 9/11, our team at CDSN/CSIDS organized an event and created a video.  The event brought together those with perspectives on the international dynamics after 9/11 with those having expertise on the ramifications in Canada: the Asia Foundation's Tabasum Akseerformer Ambassadors Sabine Nolke and Kerry Buck, and Imam Navaid Aziz who is a leader of Canada's Muslim community.  We taped it:

We also put together a video asking those who served in decision-making posts that day as well the perspectives of today's experts:

We still have much to learn from the past 20 years, but if there is one thing I want folks to learn is this: Green Lantern is not a thing.  Huh?  Green Lantern is the DC superhero whose ring allows him to create a green version of whatever he wants--he can wish anything into being.  What we should have learned from the experience in Afghanistan and the other interventions of the past 20 years is some damned humility about what can be done in the world.  

Yet we haven't.  Yesterday, a person with whom I appeared on TV a few years ago reposted the link, arguing that we should have confronted Pakistan more assertively as it supported the Taliban.  

Sure, I agree that Pakistan was/is supporting the Taliban, but in that video, I noted that there was little the US and its allies could do about it.  Why? Nearly all of the supplies for the troops in Afghanistan--ammunition, water, fuel, food, etc--flowed through Pakistan.  Plus much of the air support flew over Pakistan.  The alternatives were Russia and Iran ultimately... not great.  So, the US had minimal leverage over Pakistan.  The irony here is that the Taliban's victory and the American withdrawal from Afghanistan dramatically reduces Pakistan's leverage.

A tangent about leverage: I was on a TV program this week, and there were five panelists, so I didn't get much of a chance to speak.  But I wish I had made a simple and obvious point--that the US and its allies had a lot of leverage in 2002 and damned little in 2021 vis-a-vis the Taliban.  So, that affected the kinds of deals one could make.  

Anyhow, onto a more local bout of Green Lanterning.  I watched a CGAI event that presented Canadian decision-makers of the time--Richard Fadden and Eugene Lang--and the CDSN's Andrea Charron talking about the legacy of 9/11 as well.  One recurring theme, especially by Lang, was that Canada has chosen to be dependent for its security on the US.  Sure, the US is not as reliable as it used to be (thanks to Trump and the GOP), but WHAT ALTERNATIVE IS THERE?  Lang kept saying, we could chose to be less so, and my basic question is how?  Spending double on the military wouldn't do it.  Triple?  It may suck sometimes, but there is no getting away from basic facts--that the US is the only country bordering Canada, that it is way more powerful on every measure, and that collaborating with it is the only choice.  Canada could choose to do less operations abroad, but it can't choose not to rely on the US for its own defence against China and Russia. 

So, how about some humility?  That is the one of the most important lessons of the past 20 years.  We have less influence over events than we think, that force is not as effective as we would like (good for breaking, bad for building), that cooperation is hard but necessary, and that we can't wish things into being.  It is not so much that there is no "political will" but that there are real constraints that can't be wished away--domestic ones and international ones.  

In the comic books, if I recall correctly (I was never a reader of Green Lantern), the adversary of GL is anything yellow, and, yes, this is a reference to cowardice.  But it is not cowardice to recognize that one does not have Green Lantern's powers.  Indeed, it may be far more courageous to recognize the limits of one's own abilities.  

So, I will conclude with an Ultimate analogy.  I think, when I played best, it was because I was pretty good at recognizing the limits of myself and my teammates--that I would not throw high throws to my teammates who could not catch the disk over their heads, that I would not throw very far in front of my teammates who were not so fast, that I wouldn't throw hammers to teammates that had problems catching that hard to read throw (and for other reasons), that I no longer try to throw it as long as I used to as I cannot (aging sucks).  It is no accident I have been using the following image for years:

A man has got to know his limitations (and women, too)


Sunday, September 5, 2021

Professional Ultimate: Damn, They Are Good

Elliot and anticipated a fun game,
woman behind us?  Not so much    
Last night, a friend and I went to see the semi-final game of the Canadian part of the American Ultimate Disk League playoffs.  The pandemic has meant that the three Canadian teams played each other all summer long--no trips across the border.

I have been to a few games, and I have been watching lots of clips of professional ultimate via the AULD's instagram account, so I knew what to expect.  Most of the rules are the same, with the exceptions of having referees, violations or fouls producing changes in yards on the field or possession, and double-teaming.  Only that last one really would be a major change, as one can only be single-teamed in all other levels of ultimate.  To be surrounded by two adversaries cutting off almost all throwing lanes would be a challenge to any ultimate player.  I imagine they have to practice this.  The opponents--the Toronto Rush--set up sideline plays on purpose to double-team a thrower.  It did put much pressure, but the turnovers the Ottawa Outlaws committed were mostly their own mistakes.

And, yes, that is a hint--the good guys lost 24-22, and that score is a bit deceptive as they were behind by four points for most of the game.  For the entire first half, the Rush didn't turnover the disk, which made it impossible to catch up after a few Outlaw turnovers.  The Outlaws mostly turned it over with bad throwing decisions plus a couple of contested catches that, well, weren't caught.  

As the highlights on instagram indicated, there are plenty of layouts on defense with some very successful bids.  There were probably not as many long throws (hucks) as expected.  There were more scoobers (backhand upside down throws) than in any game I have ever played in.  Speed still kills, as TO had one or two guys who consistently could go deep and get not just open but wide open.  

 The referreeing had some interesting impacts.  On one play, the referees blew the whistle while the disk was in the air, and it would have been a score, except the throwing team, the Rush, had called timeout apparently.  So, they negated their own score.  Plus what was incidental contact was often called, leading to the offense getting the disk on the endzone line, akin to a football receiver getting pass interference.  The picture to the right is a foul that was not so incidental as the Outlaw player tripped and then tripped up the Rush offensive player while the disk was just about to reach them.

The crowd was quite lively.  We were near a group of young women who knew the players quite well, it seems.  Kind of like sitting next to the wives/girlfriends section of a baseball game.  The age range of the crowd was quite good from kids to teens to younger adults to old grandmasters like ourselves.  Some even brought big faces of some of the players as you can almost see here.  The announcer was pretty good and amusing, although he never used the word "huck" to describe a long pass.  Instead, he said "bomb" which is not the way ultimate players refer to such plays.  Maybe too easy for the kids to hear something else instead of huck?

Unlike all other sports, I can imagine myself playing.  I was never good enough as these guys, but in the old days, I used to occasionally play with and against folks who ended up on the Montreal professional team.  As I watch, I can see what throws I would want to make (fewer upside ones) and hopefully make good choices.  But I would never get open as all of these guys could shut me down, and, of course, I would be a tremendous liability on defense.  The game is similar enough to what I am used to.  The big difference, besides the athleticism, is that they do much of the time (but surprisingly not all the time) get spaced out really well so that the cutting lanes are open and that their are almost always good cuts.  

It was a great way to spend an evening, watching what this sport I have loved for so long is becoming even as I start to have serious doubts about how much longer I can keep playing.  This summer of injuries was most frustrating.  The question for the winter is whether I can make it through most or all of the season without needing serious physical therapy.  If I can't, that will be the end of my ultimate career.   If I can, I will keep playing.  To be continued.




Saturday, August 28, 2021

Mission Accomplished: First CDSN Summer Institute Rocked!

 Yesterday concluded the first Canadian Defence and Security Network's Summer Institute.  The idea was to bring together people from across the defence/security community for a week's worth of professional development and networking.  This was one of the key ideas in our grant efforts, and it was great to see it realized after having to cancel last year's.  

We spent much time working on translating the event to being online for this summer's edition, and we are pretty pleased with how it turned out.  Instead of being in a conference room for many hours a day punctuated by meals and receptions and a tour or two, we met online for a few sessions a day.  The sessions ranged from traditional roundtables to breakout sessions to small group exercises to happy hours.  

The roundtables and breakout sessions focused on some of the threats facing Canada (climate change, extremism, and pandemics); public affairs and civil-military relations; personnel issues; a strategic foresight exercise; alliance politics; operations in Canada, north and not so north; figuring out what security means for different actors; thinking about data; and bridging the gap.  

Our presenters ranged from CDSN co-directors to academics elsewhere to government officials/practioners.  We had some media folks involved, but they could not attend due to the election.  We also had to shuffle things around a bit as some of the people who were supposed to speak were government officials with responsibilities including ...  Afghanistan.  The replacements were fantastic, providing very valuable perspectives.  The whole week was a Chatham House Rule event--no attribution of whatever was said--so the speakers felt comfortable being pretty open about stuff.  

The participants were mostly emerging scholars (PhD students, assistant professors), relatively junior military officers, and relatively junior policy officers with some folks who were less easy to categorize.  We had some folks from outside of Canada--US, UK, and Morocco.  Not sure that would have happened if we were doing things in person.  They were all very engaged and provided perspectives that taught me and other presenters a few things--when done right, learning is in two directions.

To facilitate networking, we had the participants split into the same small groups all week long and had them work on some creative thinking projects:

  • assigned a party, what would they write as that party's platform.  We had five groups, so five platforms.  And they were far more realistic than a certain one or two I have seen from the actual parties.
  • develop a DND/CAF media strategy.  This was pretty wide open, and they took it in very interesting directions
  • Three research agendas
    assigned a historically excluded community, each group was to develop strategies to make DND/CAF include that group better.
  • what should the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada and/or DND's Mobilizing Insights in Security Defence programs set as their next funding priorities.

The small group exercises worked far better than we had hoped, as they did foster some connections within the groups AND generate some really sharp thinking.  

We had two happy hours.  We did a speed dating kind of thing where each person would meet several others and exchange a bit of info--their favorite defence/security issue, their favorite hobby, a pandemic survival strategy.  We didn't set up the zoom breakout rooms quite right so it didn't work as smoothly as we liked, but it generally allowed folks to meet others and get a better sense of the other folks in the community.  The second happy hour involved geoguessr (h/t to Lama for the suggestion), a game that plops a group somewhere in the world in googlestreetview, and you have to figure out what country you are in.  It was silly, serving as a good icebreaker.  I met a few people in my zoom room that I hadn't had a chance to speak with, so I chalk that up as a win.  

This event was very inspired by stuff I had seen at Bridging the Gap's weeklong summer seminars where I was a presenter a couple of times and also by stuff I had heard about SWAMOS and other similar enterprises.  I am very grateful to the CDSN HQ team who did so much of the work this summer to get this ready, to the presenters who did great with my vague instructions and were willing to stick around after the designated time (pretty much every session went long, which I took as a good sign), and to the participants for bringing it every day.  

One of the goals of the CDSN in general and this event in particular is to foster a sense of community for those who are in this defence/security enterprise.  I am pretty sure it worked, but only time will tell.  We will try to do things down the road to bring these people back together and to reinforce the bonds that were created.  And if we can do this in person, we will add more topics, including more speakers from beyond DND/CAF.

And now I can go back to preparing to teach the next batch of classes as, alas, summer is ending. 

Thursday, August 19, 2021

Why Talk About Afghanistan

 Someone asked me today why I am talking to the media about Afghanistan: aren't there better people to talk about this stuff, especially Afghan women?  The answer is: essentially, yes, there are other voices that need to be heard.  So, I have started asking the media to ask those folks, and a TV thing I am doing tomorrow already has someone else on the panel who is covering that perspective.  For all of these other hits?  Why do I say yes?

I have been feeling uncomfortable for a few reasons:

  1. I wrote a lot about Afghanistan, but not recently.  I have not been studying the country closely as my work shifted to other topics.
  2. What I did write was on the outsiders--on NATO and on Canada--not domestic dynamics.  
  3. Many of the questions focus on what is going on right now at the airport in Kabul, and, well, damned if anyone in Canada can speak to that except the intel and ops folks in the CAF, and they aren't going to be doing any media anytime soon.

So, why do I talk anyway?  Primarily because many of the questions are about the big context--why are we there, what did we try to do, why did it fail, what does it mean for now and the future?  Those are questions I can try to answer.   This podcast for one of my better outings.  

Baseball advanced analytics came up with a measure to value players--VORP--value over replacement player.  The idea is how much more valuable is a player than the average one that could fill that spot.  The question when it comes to speaking to the media is whether I have a positive or negative VORP--value over replacement pundit. 

When the sexual misconduct/abuse of power crisis became a media story this winter, I sent the media to the women I know who study this stuff--Megan McKenzie, Maya Eichler, Charlotte Duval-Lantoine, Stéfanie von Hlatky, CDSN Post-doc Linna Tam-Seto, and others.  When the story shifted to focusing more on the civil-military relations aspects--what is parliament doing, why isn't the Minister of Defence doing his job (what is his job), I agreed to do the media hits because that is what I have been studying lately.  My VORP when it comes to sexual misconduct is negative--there are plenty of folks who can talk about that stuff far better than I.  My VORP when it comes to civ-mil is positive, in my not so humble opinion.  I can provide a comparative perspective, informed by research around the world including in Canada, for Canadian civilian-military dynamics.  

For Afghanistan, it really depends on the questions that are asked and how well I can dance towards once I can answer.  The challenge is that the questions I am told they will ask (if they tell me) are often not ones that the anchor/host actually ask.  I have gotten better as the week has gone along to asking them what they want to talk about and declining if it is out of my range.  Should they be talking about the situation facing the women of Afghanistan?  Yes.  Should I be the one answering that?  No.  Should they be talking about the other stuff?  Yes, and I can speak to some of it.  

I also feel obligated--that the grants I have applied for usually include "knowledge dissemination plans" of some kind.  So, if I get public money to study stuff, I should engage the public on that stuff.  The media's attention to these issues is episodic at best, so when the media finds an issue I have spent much public money studying, I tend to agree to talk.  Because the media will focus somewhere else soon enough.  So, in one sense, I am trying to make the governments' (and other grant agencies) money worthwhile beyond the academic enterprise.

But yeah, none of this feels good, mostly because we are talking about defeat and the consequences of losing. 

Monday, August 16, 2021

The Fall of the Afghan Government: The Big Questions

 There already has been and already will be much discussion of what all of this means.  Since I rode my bike yesterday and the podcast ran out, I have thoughts.  It is, of course, premature, but this is the place for half-baked ideas--the semi in the spew.  

The first question is: did social science waste its time and money?  Stathis Kalyvas asked this question today

I responded to him by noting several things

  • Failure was overdetermined so even if there was good social science that caused someone (the US govt?) to do stuff better, it might not have made a difference
  • that what we learn here could work better elsewhere
  • that folks may have learned stuff, developed policy implications, but that those implications did not produce policies that politicians wanted to follow.  When some economists said austerity was good for economic growth, that hit a group of pols in the sweet spot--hey, let's spend less on the poors.  But academics often recommend policies that are costly in the short run and the benefits only accrue in the long run (climate change!), and politicians live in the short term.

There is an irony here--that Kalyvas led a movement in the comparative politics of civil war, arguing that the local dynamics and the national dynamics were different, that the master narrative was often deceptive.  Well, the social science stuff done on the war may have been good at grasping elements of the local dynamics, but it turned out the master narrative mattered, too.  That the Taliban was able to take the local stuff--fights over property, groups being left out of the spoils, etc--and use that to undermine a weakly institutionalized and very divided Afghan govt and society.  A recurring theme--easier to break than to build

The next question is: was it worth it?  Depends on the it one is referring to.  The goal was a self-sustaining Afghan government, and, that effort clearly failed.  If the it was more about meeting alliance obligations, which is why most of the non-American countries showed up and which is how I define the "it" in my book on Canada's experience, then it is a matter of what were the benefits of meeting an alliance obligation versus the costs of opting out.  Opting out of Afghanistan would have been costlier than opting out of Iraq, but were those costs worth over 160 Canadian lives lost and many more wounded?  

A different way to think about "worth it" is did the effort make either a significant difference in the 20 years that it was worth it or if there is stuff that will endure beyond the Taliban's victory today?  There is no doubt that life got better for Afghans after the Taliban was ejected--the measures in terms of infant mortality and women surviving childbirth are clear.  The folks who were immunized due to a polio vaccination campaign will not get polio, so that is perhaps the most enduring contribution by the outsiders.  So, there is a generation of Afghans who live now thanks to the intervention.  But is that worth the 3500 lives lost by the allies and the tens of thousands of lives lost by Afghans who got caught in the middle?  How many would the Taliban have capriciously killed in the past 20 years if they still governed?

Is Afghanistan better off today than Libya or Syria?  Those are places where the US intervention was more modest.  I am not sure--part of this depends on what happens next.  But, ultimately, given that Afghanistan in 2022 is probably going to look a lot like Afghanistan 2000, it is really hard to say it was worth it. Maybe Rumsfeld was right in his original intention--that breaking the Taliban and then running would have been better, although, again, Libya suggests maybe not.  

So I don't really have a good answer.

What can we learn? 

  •  Much humility about the use of force.  We could not kill our way to victory.  Despite 20 years and a lot of resources, the effort failed.  It is simply much harder to build governance than it is to break a regime.  Obama learned that lesson and thus was reluctant to intervene in Libya, but was pushed into it by France and UK.  He tried to stay out of Syria, and well, that showed doing little or nothing is problematic, too.
  • I read a pretty persuasive thread about the US military maybe not preparing for the end because they wanted to force Biden's hand.  Obama was very concerned about the military boxing him in, and, I think Biden learned that lesson.  The end here was very, very fast, but there seems to have been no plan.  Isn't the military supposed to be planning contingencies all the time?  The two wars revealed that civilian control of the US military is not what it should be.  Part of this is that militaries are trained to be can-do outfits, and they are often relentlessly optimistic, which then creates credibility gaps. 
  • To stop using the graveyard of empires.  Afghanistan will not sink the American empire.  The greatest threats to American power are domestic.  Some will argue that the forever wars led to Trump and that may be true to a degree, but the polarization of American politics and the rise of the bad faith crowd in the GOP preceded 9/11.  But that is an argument for a different day. 
  • Our allies will learn ... what they want to learn.  No, our allies will not think the US is unreliable for leaving after 20 years.  After all, most of them were there and left before the US (hey, Canada!).  Just like our allies didn't give up on NATO and other allies after Vietnam, they won't after this.  Partly because there is no other game in town and partly because they all know that they are not Afghanistan.  Indeed, the lesson from Vietnam was: hey, if the US is willing fight for more than a decade, lose thousands of soldiers, and spend billions of dollars for a place it does not really care about, then we are ok. And that same less applies here since the US stuck around in a place that it really didn't care about for 20 years, trillion dollars, a couple thousand lives, and so on.

Who is responsible?  Everyone.  The US made big mistakes at the outset---relying on warlords, having too small of a footprint, sponsoring a constitution that was a very bad fit, distracted by Iraq--and other mistakes along the way--cycling generals and strategies, for example.  Obama made mistakes, Trump didn't help.  Biden's team has handled this endgame poorly. The allies could have done better (see our book for some reasons why they didn't).  Pakistan did so much to undermine the effort, and Iran and eventually Russia did some damage. The Afghans were served poorly by their own politicians.  

It is a land of bad policy alternatives, so I have a hard time articulating what should have been done in 2001-2002.  It is easy to note what should not have been done.  I think the key thing to remember is that the enemy has a vote, as they say, that the Taliban had agency.  So, one cannot read into the current dynamics too much about US mistakes without considering how the Taliban would have changed its behavior.  Again, it is easier to destroy than to create--we demonstrated that in 2001, the Taliban has demonstrated that ever since.  I don't know if the Taliban will manage to control the entire country, but they did succeed in denying control by the Afghan government and its allies.  What's next?  More heartbreak.

I am very sad for the Afghan people, who were poorly governed by their own, and let down by the international community.  I also feel bad for those in the various militaries and governments who sacrificed much and who continue to pay a price for what they tried to do, as they watch twenty years of effort reversed in a few weeks.