Well, That’s Like Your Opinion Dude.

Here is my chance to muse over something that has been distracting me from my other work, so I’d like to take that opportunity.

It seems that the United States is once again attempting to pull back – somewhat – from its role as the Sheriff (to use Colin S. Gray’s term) in the Middle East. This shouldn’t be too surprising given the history of its oscillating pattern of engagement and isolation in foreign policy over the long-term. On one hand, this is understandable, as the most powerful country in the world has a lot on its plate right now coupled with little appetite for it.  On the other hand, this is not exactly the best time to be walking away from the table. This is a problem, and I’ll try to explain why I think it is a problem.

Acting out of necessity, American policymakers are re-calculating the ends, ways, and means of American statecraft. This is a normal process when formulating strategy and is not in and of itself reason to worry. However, there are many other reasons to worry and the place where many of them intersect is not at all surprising: the Middle East. This is a region that has long frustrated American security interests over preceding decades.  In my view, it is about to get a whole lot worse.  Here are the three main reasons why: (1) the increasing scarcity of American resources and political will to allocate them to the region’s problems; (2) the impact of more than a decade of war; and (3) the Arab Spring.

First, the Economic crisis of 2008 has increasingly constrained the resources available to the United States, both in material terms and in political will. As a result, policymakers have been forced to adjust the ways and means employed globally, with emphasis on the Middle East. The problem lies in the fact that this is being done without adjusting the ends it seeks. The result is a strategic imbalance. In other words, the United States is attempting to do a lot more with a lot less. Here are a couple of recent examples. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta is expected to “trim” the Pentagon’s budget by 450 billion over the next decade. It may be too early to decipher (however that cannot stop an aspiring strategist from speculating) the precise reasons for the decision to bring all U.S. military personnel home from Iraq by Christmas 2011, but the financial burden of supporting a sizeable military contingent in Iraq is not widely appealing. More important than the cause will be the effect of bringing home what is, in the view of many, “the glue” that has perilously held Iraq together since 2003. So much for American Imperial ambition in the Middle East! So what’s the problem? Many would see these as positive developments.  Not so. Have a look at the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) annual report The Military Balance 2011 and one will begin to understand the who, what, where, to some extent why, and how the United States Military is structured and deployed. Like it or not, American military hegemony is a powerful guarantor of the stability our international state system requires and the peace we often take for granted. Notably, this weekend Secretary of State Hilary Clinton declared, “No one should miscalculate America’s resolve and commitment to helping support the Iraqi democracy. We have paid too high a price to give the Iraqis this chance.” So who is she referring too? Saudi Arabian Prince Turki al-Faisal has an interesting take on that.  Tip O’Neil has said “all politics is local,” and this is especially so for the United States, particularly at a time of economic hardship.

Second, the American military has been at war for over a decade. Sun Tzu reportedly said something along these lines: “a long war is in no one’s interest.” This point is much harder to quantify, nevertheless there are strong indications that domestic political support for war is decreasing. As mentioned earlier, the difficult war in Iraq is ending, while the “other” war in Afghanistan-Pakistan has steadily taken a turn for the worse and is escalating. Elsewhere, the U.S. participated along with NATO allies in another military intervention (regime change) that recently wrapped up in Libya, echoing the relative ease of operations in Kosovo in 1999, but raising more important questions of governance and stability in its aftermath. In sum, the operational tempo that the U.S. military has undertaken over the past decade is staggering and unsustainable for a relatively small all-volunteer force. Not to mention the immense cost of doing business in both blood and treasure.

Third, and perhaps most importantly is the Arab Spring. U.S. policy in the Middle East has long championed stability (the status quo) as its principle goal. Stability (i.e. strong autocratic rulers in key states, Israel’s security, and the free flow of oil) worked pretty well until recently. That is until one man in Tunisia this January sparked a series of ongoing popular uprisings called the Arab Spring, which has the potential to change everything.  For those keeping track, here is a recent scorecard. For those not, here are some of the key developments: the first free election in Tunisia is taking place right now; Hosni Mubarak is on trial in Egypt with elections set in coming months; and Muamar al-Gadhafi (Libya’s strongman) is dead and his regime gone.  Meanwhile, Syria and Yemen have descended into deadly cycles of protest and violent state repression, while other states in the region have – in important ways but to a lesser extent – also been affected (Bahrain, Morocco, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Jordan). U.S. policy has attempted to respond to the varied, complex, and unforeseen events sweeping the region. In May, President Obama gave an important speech which accepted the demise of the status quo: “we face a historic opportunity…there will be perils that accompany this moment of promise. But after decades of accepting the world as it is in the region, we have a chance to pursue the world as it should be.” In the view of many commentators, this opportunity, as the President has called it, has just as much chance of realizing genuine democratic change along the lines of George W. Bush’s Freedom Agenda, as becoming an unprecedented political opportunity for Islamists of all stripes breaking free from a long period of repression and rising to power. Given the state of historical and contemporary relations between the United States and Islamist governments (Iran, Afghanistan, and Sudan) and Islamist political organizations (Hamas, Hezbollah, the Muslim Brotherhood) future prospects are not promising. Many have argued that the Arab Spring is a clear repudiation of the al-Qa’ida’s ideology and the strategies employed by violent Islamist groups to overthrow the rulers of the near enemy. I think it is much too early to tell (however that cannot stop an aspiring strategist from speculating). Perhaps the main point to be taken from the American position on the Arab Spring is that they have had to embrace the wave of uncertain change which has and will further imperil their interests in the region by default because of the very idealism on which their country was founded and from which they derive their international credibility. This is a great example of the complexity of playing “the long game.”  A recent CTCWP report on the Arab Spring warns of the prospect of not embracing the popular uprisings: “The United States risks positioning itself as a Moscow watching and lamenting the fall of the Berlin wall.” So much for realpolitik.

Upon reading this (hoping someone in fact does read this) one might detect a little pessimism, which I believe is warranted but not over the top. But let’s return to the point of this muse. The United States is the most powerful country in the world, it has the most powerful military in the world, and it has played a key role in maintaining stability (the status quo which was largely beneficial to its interests) in the Middle East. That being said, the United States is facing severe economic conditions that are causing it to reassess the ways and means in which it has kept the relative peace and stability in a particularly troublesome region. In addition, it is increasingly weary of the numerous and costly military interventions it is involved in. Thus, the problem is twofold: (1) the Middle East region is in upheaval, the status quo decimated, and the prospects for conflict between any number of regional actors (state and non-state) has increased; and (2) this comes at a time when resources and the political will to allocate them have become increasingly scarce for a war weary United States.

Any comments?


The Instruments of War: In Miniature

On 17 September 2011, the Alberta Military Modellers Show (AMMS) took place at The Military Museums in Calgary. Within the hall of the Naval wing, a series of tables were set up where modellers from Calgary and nearby cities/towns could show off their scale models. Subjects varied, but kept to a military theme; as is usual at these things, AFVs (armoured fighting vehicles) and airplanes comprised the majority of the entries, while ships and figures made up the rest. Unlike most other modelling shows, where a competitive grading scheme of First, Second, and Third is in place, AMMS uses an absolute grading scale marked out of 20 when assessing entries. Thus, a category can well have multiple golds if they all fall within the required scoring range. Because AMMS is a fairly new show (I think it’s only their second year) and thus has relatively few entries (roughly 200), this works well, as categories that have only one or two entries will have meaningful results instead of winning First or Second by default due to a lack of competition.

For my contribution, I entered a 1/700 scale model of the Brasil Maru, a 12,000-ton Japanese cargo-liner built in 1939 that was requisitioned for troop transportation once war broke out and later designated for conversion to an aircraft carrier. Before that could be accomplished, however, she was sunk by the US submarine Greenling in August 1942. There is not much information on the web regarding the Brasil Maru, sadly.

I chose to model her in her civilian guise with the more handsome buff-black-white colour scheme. If you wish to read more about the kit itself and the modifications I made to it, feel free to check out this gallery:  http://www.modelshipgallery.com/gallery/service/cargo/brasilmaru-700-tc/tc-index.html

Sadly, she was the only entry in the category (Ships: 1/501 [scale] & smaller). Nonetheless, she ended up with a score of 18/20, and thus a gold ranking. It was a pleasant surprise, as I had expected a few of the more glaring construction flaws would bump it way down.

I brought the model back to Vancouver with me in early October as there was another model show hosted by Vancouver’s modeling club on the weekend of my undergrad convocation ceremony. The show there is significantly more established (around 500 entries) and is marked on a relative competitive scale. Facing a vast armada of competition, my little Maru stood no chance. Nonetheless, it was good to attend and see some friends again (did you know one of Vancouver’s city councillors is also an avid ship modeller?).

Right now, I’m working on a 1/350 scale resin kit of a Flower class corvette as a commission by Dr. David Bercuson. It will be of HMCS Chambly during her attack on U-501 as part of convoy S.C. 42, notable for being the first RCN sinking of a U-boat. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Convoy_SC_42) I hope to get it done by the end of the semester, but one never knows with these things.

Thanks for reading!

Tim Choi (1st year MSS)

Quarter-life Crisis

Now is really not a good time for me. I’m bogged down in the quagmire that is graduate school and this panic that I’m experiencing when trying to make life decisions is detrimental to my already limited focus. I’m barely into the second year of a Masters program and I am forced, once again, to engage in some serious soul searching to try to answer the illusive “what do I want to do when I grow up?” (Solution? Don’t grow up. I wish.) My increased awareness of the need to start thinking about what comes after this program has been prompted by some recent interactions with people (read: grown-ups) from outside my comfy academic bubble. They ask me what I’m doing with my time and I get a slightly condescending response when I tell people exactly what my Masters will be in. “Oh? And what can you do with that degree?” Tempting though it may be, I try to avoid sticking fingers in my ears, sticking out my tongue and saying “I know you are, but what am I?!” I tell these ‘concerned individuals’ that I have many options. For example, I can go into a PhD program and be a professor and professional academic. I can work in the defence industry, for a think tank, or in research and policy consultation. I can also work for the government. There is a collective sigh of relief that I might actually have a future. But then the pressure increases- which will I choose? Answer: I have no idea so please stop asking.

To be perfectly honest, this is not a great time for new graduates. The job market is limited and the real grown-ups (read: old people) just won’t retire. Universities lost money in 2008 right along with everyone else and funding for most graduate schools is down. So I can either search for an entry-level job where I may be stuck for many, many years, start a PhD program and live in what one professor here calls “genteel” poverty as a student foranother five or six years (won’t my parents be impressed when I move home every summer until I’m 30?), or I can sit bored at a desk for the first fifteen years of my career working for the government. With all these ‘amazing’ options it’s no surprise I’m unsure and severely stressed over what the future holds for me after graduation.

It’s not that I’m not thinking about it. I’m actually trying to cover all my bases. I’m applying for a make-or-break scholarship, trying to write A+ PhD applications, and searching for jobs in every corner of the country. I’m TAing and on a sports team and trying to have something vaguely resembling a social life. Even my procrastination focuses on the future: I’m dreaming of teaching big classes and making a difference in someone’s academic life, but I’m also drooling over the possibilities that money brings like houses and dogs and ‘discretionary spending’. Oh, and I’m trying to write a thesis that will allow me to move onto whatever comes next.

So quarter-life crisis, let’s put this off for a while, shall we? And grown-ups, now you’ll understand why I may suddenly plug my ears and yell “I can’t hear you!” or “I’m rubber and you’re glue” when you start asking me about school and life. I apologize in advance.

The Patrol

Ryan Flavelle, a Masters student at CMSS, joined the Canadian Forces reserves as a signaller in 2001. In 2007 he volunteered to go to Afghanistan. Ryan’s memoir of his experience – a boots-on-the-ground account of what life is really like for Canadian soldiers in the twenty-first century – was published this week.

First of all, I’m not going to lie, it’s pretty freakin awesome that I’m getting a book published.  I have held my own words in my hands.  I’m happy about that.  It stays open if you just leave it sitting, you don’t need two hands to hold it open! That’s awesome.  But, of course, there is a tinge of bittersweet.

My book, The Patrol, is about my experiences in Afghanistan.  I was overseas for a little over seven months with the infantry, Bravo Company 2 PPCLI to be precise.  I was a signals operator, so I knew their radios better than I knew many of them, but I also did a bit of patrolling.  Enough patrolling, in fact, as I decided near the end of the tour.

But now I have to go back there and relive those days.  They weren’t all terrible days, many of them were boring, many of them were great, but a few of them were terrible.  Luckily, grad school has given me plenty of scope within which to be opinionated, and I get to do what I do best: tell other people what I think.  I get to do what I set out to with my book, tell Canadians what we did in their name while I was in Afghanistan.  That seems like it’s worth doing.

The book is in my hands, and it feels good.  It is a realization of a goal that I set myself after I got back from tour.  It feels like Christmas day.

For anyone that doesn’t know, the book launch is Wednesday Oct 26th between 1830 and 2030 (6:30 – 8:30) at the EEEL building on Campus.  Everyone should swing by. I have $350 to put on the bar for the after party at the Grad Lounge.



“Nothing can prepare a person for the reality of bloody, concussive warfare. . . . Those who like war are aptly named warriors. Some, like me, are fated never to be warriors, as we are more afraid of war than fascinated by it. But I have the consolation that I have walked with warriors and know what kind of men and women they are. I will never be a warrior, but I have known war.”

(The Patrol)

Operation Paintball 2011

It has become an annual fall tradition for CMSS to challenge the history department to meet on the field of paintball battle. It’s an opportunity for the new students to get to know the department in a fun and informal environment… and strategic studies grad students – not to mention the faculty – always seem to jump at the chance to “play” war.

Unfortunately the history contingent was unable to attend the battle this year…. certainly not a reflection of their fear for our superior tactical and paintball skills… but CMSS managed to have fun none-the-less. After finally managing to divide the teams equally (amidst sad sighs from the math student among us… you poor social scientists) we took our positions and prepared to engage the enemy. Three battles later, and despite losing one of our comrades to traumatic ankle injury, the day was declared a success by victors and vanquished alike.

Hopefully next year our call to arms will rouse a little more enthusiasm from the history students. We’ll even let you guys have a head start…. we promise.

Toeing the Party Line…

We are very fortunate here at the UofC, and at CMSS specifically, to enjoy regular presentations by academics, policy-makers, and members of the armed forces who come to share their experiences, research, and opinions with us. These presentations are invaluable to our development as students. They force us to pull our heads out of our books, they provide access to information not readily available in the library and – often – they offer a forum for open discussion on important and topical issues. I say “often” only because this forum for constructive dialogue is occasionally, and in the case of our defence department, all too frequently, squandered. Why does DND choose to continue sending out representatives to “discuss important and relevant issues to all Canadians” and then refuse to actually discuss the issues? We appreciate that some things are classified, that others are not easily discussed with the public, and that significant time should be spent on the varied and wonderful achievements of our armed forces operating around the world. That said, why must we pretend that all decisions concerning Canadian defence and Canadian military operations are beyond reproach – or at least discussion and re-examination? Where, if not in an academic setting, with students who are currently researching these issues and many of whom are preparing to fill the very positions our government and armed forces now hold, should real discussions take place? Not every meeting or presentation should be treated as a PR opportunity. You’re not fooling anyone guys…. we know that things in Afghanistan and elsewhere weren’t all flowers and sunshine. If you’re not willing to discuss the real issues, the same things are going to happen again next time. Please don’t patronize us. We’re grad students… not journalists.

Cryptic Conference – Ferris and Robson take Washington

On 6-7 October 2011, the Centre for Military and Strategic Studies’ Dr. John Ferris and Masters candidate Maria Robson attended the Center for Cryptologic History’s biennial symposium, “Cryptology in War and Peace: Crisis Points in History”, in Laurel, Maryland. Maria is studying signals intelligence and communications security and had the opportunity to meet with scholars and former practitioners in the field. Dr. Ferris presented on two panels, speaking first on British naval cryptography and cryptology in World War Two, then on the role of signals intelligence in the 1922 Chanak Crisis. The conferences featured plenary sessions with cryptologic veterans who worked in signals intelligence in both World War Two and the Vietnam War. Dr. Ferris and Maria also took advantage of the trip to conduct archival research in Washington, D.C.

“The highlight of the conference for me was speaking with a former codebreaker who worked at Bletchley Park during World War Two. As a student of cryptology I found it fascinating to speak to someone with actual experience in code breaking. Overall, I appreciated having a chance to plunge into archival research in Washington this early in my Masters and to speak to individuals with experience in the field.” –Maria