Sajjan Affair: Why a former soldier serving as defence minister is problematic

If the Canadian Armed Forces feel betrayed by Sajjan, it is because they wrongly thought the defence minister should be an ally. As Steve Saideman writes, he shouldn’t be.

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May 1, 2017
Canada's Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan arrives to speak to journalists on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada, May 1, 2017. REUTERS/Chris Wattie

I spent much of November and December of last year arguing that naming a very recently retired former general as U.S. Secretary of Defense is problematic — that there is much confusion to be had, by the former officer, the person who picked him, and the public. 

Well, we see in recent days that this argument may have applied to the country to the north as well.

Canadian Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan has gotten into hot water for stating that he was the architect for a major effort, Operation Medusa,* in Afghanistan in 2006. Whether he was or was not (probably not), this is problematic to those soldiers who serve because he is seen as taking credit for what was a multi-person effort. So, either bragging or lying violates the sense of honour that Canadian soldiers have. Monday, Sajjan did not explain but did apologize in parliament.

So, is this just a tempest in a teapot? No. Is this a fireable offence? Probably not. Is this mostly distraction sauce? Probably. 

Let me explain my still-confused take.

Sajjan is now a politician and not a military officer. We tend to view politicians as having more liberties with the truth than military officers, including defence ministers/secretaries. So, the sin of exaggerating or lying by Sajjan is not as grievous now as it would have been if he had lied to his commanders or subordinates while in uniform. Still, this is now a political problem that the opposition will have much fun playing with. Will Sajjan lose effectiveness because of this crisis? That depends on whether you think Sajjan has been effective thus far. And that is where the problem really lies.

How effective has Sajjan been thus far? The answer to that partly depends on the eventual release of the Defence Policy Review, as it will shape Canadian defence and could either be a significant step forward or more of the same. So far, his decisions have been slow and controversial. 

"The minister should not be buddies with the armed forces, nor should he be seen as such."

The most visible one has been the effort to buy Super Hornets as an interim solution, rather than commit to the F-35 buy, rather than open competition now for that next fighter plane purchase. Other procurement decisions have been delayed as well, and delays increase costs. In terms of what the Canadian Armed Forces is actually doing in the field, Sajjan has been mostly fine. Sure, he got stuck with the ‘combat but not combat’ thing, in terms of how Canada is engaging in Iraq, but that seems to hit all leaders who are involved in reassuring publics that the democracies are not in Iraq to do conventional war. The big challenge ahead for the CAF in Iraq is what to do after the Mosul operation, and delays on those decisions have probably limited Canadian options.

All this is to suggest that Sajjan is vulnerable because he has not been very effective. I doubt he will get fired soon, but he may get shuffled to a new position this summer.

Is this a crisis in Canadian civil-military relations? Sure, because any time it seems like the military is criticizing the minister of defence, we can call it a crisis. But it is not a stark one and probably a temporary one. It is certainly not the place for soldiers to call for the firing/resignation of their defence ministers, and all we have is retired officers on the record and maybe some active soldiers off the record calling for such a measure at the moment.

The big problem here as I hinted above is that putting a recently retired officer in charge of the military creates the perception that the minister of defence is going to be an ally of the armed forces. This is a problem since the job of the minister is to do most of the oversight over the CAF. The prime minister is too busy with other stuff. The parliamentarians don't see oversight as their job — they see their job as holding the minister to account. 

There is no other elected official in Canada (and in many other democracies) who has the information necessary to oversee the armed forces. So, the minister should not be buddies with the armed forces, nor should he be seen as such. Yet the government made a big deal of picking a "badass" who might just be friends with his former crewmates, which creates expectations that not only cannot be met but should not be met.

"The Sajjan episode will give the opposition an easy but empty issue to play with."

The other big problem is that this episode will give the opposition an easy but empty issue to play with. Lying or not about something that happened 11 years ago is really not that important compared to whether Canada is buying the most appropriate military equipment, whether enough money is being spent on operations or training or maintenance (there is no lobby pushing for that compared to spending on equipment, with contractors as lobbyists, or personnel, with retired soldiers as lobbyists). But the built-in dysfunction in this political system is that it is far easier to focus on style and flash and not substance.

Is it a problem that Canada’s defence minister exaggerated or lied about his role long ago? Sure. Is it the most important thing going on today in Canadian defence? Far from it. Not a sexy line for the radio apparently, but true nonetheless.

I have heard mixed reviews about the planning of Op Medusa. Yes, it did clear out the Taliban from posing a threat to Kandahar City, but some people I have talked to over the years did not have a high opinion of General David Fraser's tactics during the operation. The criticism is that the effort was needlessly costly to Canadians because Fraser (and other architects?) did not adapt their plan once the Taliban sprung their own ambushes. However, I do not really know enough to adjudicate the competing claims. I am just reporting that there are competing claims. And not "the earth is not warming" kind of competing claims.

An earlier version of this article appear on the author’s website.