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.