Monday, September 20, 2021

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. 


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