The joy of blogging is that one can come up with whatever title one wants.  An agony of academic publishing is that one cannot do the same for articles published in academic journals.  However, getting published is the thing, so I am mighty pleased that the first piece of the Phil/Dave/Steve project on legislatures and oversight over the armed forces of the world’s democracies is now published: “Public critic or secretive monitor: party objectives and legislative oversight of the military in Canada.”*  The big question, of course, is how did a paper on Canada get into West European Politics?  The answer: tis part of a special issue on executive-legislative relations and foreign/defence policy.

* Dave have his own article in this special issue (link to be posted later).

Our entire SSHRC-funded project started with me being puzzled, driven by my growing up in the US: what do you mean, the defence committees of the Canadian Parliament do not have security clearances?  That they cannot see the secret stuff and ask generals/admirals about operations?  If the legislators don’t have access to classified info, then how can they hold the executive to account?  Information is EVERYTHING in principal-agency theory–that information asymmetries mean that agents can do more or less than what the principals desire.  Usually, principals try to figure out ways to overcome the asymmetry, but in Canada, not so much.  So, the paper ponders why parliamentarians would prefer to be a public critic (ignorant critic) rather than secretive monitor (informed overseer).

The answer focuses on how institutions and party politics focus parliamentarians not in good governance but on point-scoring.  We use the Afghanistan detainee controversy (which is in the news again) to figure out this puzzle, ultimately realizing that politicians doing oversight behind closed doors get little political advantage while shouting in parliament, with or without good info, is viewed as better for the next election.  The question ultimately turns on whether politicians prefer to seek votes or influence policy (not always a tradeoff but can be).

Why is this relevant today? Well, first, this puzzle has led to grants and fellowships and, thus, my trip to Japan to see how it works over there.  Short answer: I don’t know yet as I still have more interviews to conduct.  Second, the Liberals came into power seeking to create some oversight over the secret stuff, giving some parliamentarians some access to the secrets.  However, this new body does not really fix the problem that we identify (our comparative project aims to understand not just the attitudes towards oversight but the effects of different forms, so perhaps Canada is not so problematic).  Why not?  First, as Phil has written elsewhere, it is not a parliamentary committee–the real principal for this new committee is not the Canadian Parliament but the Prime Minister who can restrict access to information quite easily.  Second, the focus of the entire discussion has been on surveillance/intel and not on military operations.  This body is not going to be overseeing the Canadian Armed Forces, so the only elected officials in Canada that have any clue about what secret stuff the CAF is doing are the Prime Minister and Defence Minister.  This is not just true of Canada as other democracies are taking more seriously oversight over intelligence gathering (thanks, perhaps, to Snowden and Manning), but we see

For me, that is problematic.  Why?  If war is too important to be left to the generals, as Clemenceau said amid the increasing piles of bodies coming home in World War I, then democratic oversight of the military is too important to be left to the executive. Why?  Because Presidents/Prime Ministers/Ministers and Secretaries of Defence have incentives to hide mistakes (Abu Ghraib anyone?) and also might be tempted to use the military secretly in ways that are either unlawful or unwise.

Living in Canada made me realize that not every country has multiple Armed Services Committees who are tasked by the greater legislative body to oversee the deployment of the armed forces.  Indeed, it may be that the US is very exceptional (or used to be, before polarization, and, yes, party discipline/polarization are key variables in the larger project).  Yes, other countries have legislatures that can and do vote about whether to deploy or not, but the question for us is: what next?  Do these bodies follow through and see that their intent, their limitations, their caveats are adhered to?  Not so sure, so the work continues.