Militaries Don't Start Wars, Politicians Do

Steve Saideman responds to the notion that, under the right circumstances, militaries can push countries into war.
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December 2, 2013
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Over the weekend, the Globe and Mail’s Doug Saunders issued a call for caution in light of recent events in the East China Sea and in Iran: that militaries may push civilians into unwanted and lengthy conflicts.  Using lessons gleaned from the experiences of the First World War, Saunders rightly notes that militaries lacking oversight can provide civilians with so few options that war seems like the only choice.

The problem is that he then extends his analysis to Afghanistan, a war where the timetables were so very clearly driven by politics in Kabul, in Brussels, in Washington, and in Ottawa.  Since the First World War, so much has changed in civil-military relations that it is now very difficult for the militaries of advanced democracies to push their countries into war, despite the myths about the Kandahar decision that continue to resonate in Canada.

The one common force across NATO was not hungry militaries looking for a new mission to prove themselves, to advance their agendas, for glory, for power, or for increased budgets, even if they did get some more money for a while.  No, the common force was NATO itself.  In the aftermath of 9/11, every member of the alliance and other allies of the United States felt compelled by treaty obligations and by national interests to support the one ally they all depend upon for their own security.

The Kandahar decision was hardly unique, as NATO’s political leaders decided to expand its coverage to the whole of Afghanistan, forcing each member to make commitments beyond peacekeepers in Kabul. Sure, countries varied in how many troops they sent, in how dangerous the areas of responsibility they were willing to assume, and in how much flexibility they gave their commanders to make decisions on the ground (the last is the subject of my book that comes out next month).  But every NATO leader had to face difficult choices, thrust upon them not by militaries and their pernicious schedules, but by the alliance, whose decisions the politicians shaped.

To say that Martin or Harper, Bush or Obama, and all the rest were pushed by calendars is certainly true.  But these timetables were not drawn up by military officers but by those who scheduled votes and elections in Kabul, Ottawa, Washington, Paris, and elsewhere. The controversial Canadian decision to go to Kandahar was impacted certainly by the political flux in this country, where Martin may not have had much time between assuming office and deciding to deploy the Canadian Forces to Kandahar.  And as he made that decision, he was facing a new election.

After that decision, the rest of the Canadian mission was shaped far more by the schedule set in Ottawa than elsewhere ­– the decisions in 2006 to extend the mission to 2009 set the stage for the Manley Panel and the Parliamentary vote in 2008. The Manley Panel greatly influenced how the mission would be conducted, although the time limit on the mission was imposed by the politicians against the panel’s recommendations (there was no rationale for a specific time to end the mission according to the panel). Harper’s decision to put trainers in a “Kabul-centric” mission was made almost entirely without advice from the military, and, indeed, surprised many in and out of uniform in Ottawa and in Brussels. 

President Obama’s decision to surge was one pushed by the military, but he resisted sending the number of troops that General McChrystal had requested and then set a time limit for the surge.  So, the calendar was one of his choosing and not the American military’s.  2014 became the year marking the end of the mission in part because it is the end of President Karzai’s second term.  It may become the end of American and NATO deployments in Afghanistan if Karzai continues to dither on a security agreement.

Throughout the missions in Afghanistan, military leaders asked for more troops and more time.  They sometimes got the former. They did not get the latter. Much has changed since the First World War, where military leaders could present no options and then launch fruitless attack after fruitless attack, bleeding their countries of hundreds of thousands of their youth. That is hard to imagine today. Why? Partly because that war caused civilians to become forever skeptical about the claims of military’s experts about what is necessary and what is feasible, and partly because the military has lost its monopoly over expertise over the past century.

After “the Great War” and much more so after the Second World War, governments and other actors invested in research centres, in developing bureaucracies, and in supporting the education and research of non-military folks, such as academics and defence analysts (alas Canada has dramatically cut such support over the past few years with the end of the Security and Defence Forum). Now, when a military in an advanced democracy asks for something, there are other voices in the room and in the public sphere to ask the tough questions, raise some skepticism about the policy options and advise the politicians of alternative options.

There was a book about Vietnam entitled The Irony of Vietnam: The System Worked. A similar title could be applied to the Kandahar decision. Prime Minister Martin was not enthusiastic about the mission. He sought counsel from both the military and civilians about it, and realized that there were larger interests at stake – Canada’s commitment to NATO and his own interest in having Canada make a difference.  This was not a rash decision, nor was it one pursued only by the Canadian Forces. Sure, Rick Hillier has a strong personality and had a strong opinion on this, but key actors elsewhere in the Canadian foreign policy bureaucracy, such as Chris Alexander, were equally as enthusiastic. Bill Graham, who had far more experience in foreign policy than the average Defence Minister, supported the mission as it fit into the wider pattern of Canadian defence and foreign policy. Despite the best efforts by the Liberal Party to run away from this decision, it was a decision that Paul Martin made after serious consideration with civilians and military officers in the room.

Saunders is correct that we need to be wary when developing events provide opportunities for confrontations that might lead to escalations.  The China-Japan-South Korea-United States tensions in the East China Sea are reminiscent not so much of 1914 but of 1950-1989.  There were many opportunities for war to spiral out of the intermingling of ships and planes in contested areas during the Cold War. We were lucky before. I hope we remain lucky now. One factor shifting the odds, making conflict less likely, is that our decision-making processes are far more mature than they were a hundred years ago. I just wish we were more mature in taking ownership of recent decisions.