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Richard Shimooka: Canada’s top military officer resigns, but the Forces’ many problems remain

Commentary

Last week General Wayne Eyre announced that he intended to retire from the Canadian Armed Forces and step down from his position as Chief of the Defence Staff after 40 years of service. His retirement was unexpected but not necessarily surprising. The position is a demanding role where most who have served in the role last between three to four years, which is in line with the general’s retirement date. 

As one would expect, there are already rumors about who may be called to replace Eyre. Lt. General Jennie Carignan is one name that has repeatedly come up, but it is a bit premature to make such predictions. Rather it would be helpful to look back at Eyre’s time as CDS and understand what his successor may face once they enter office. 

Eyre’s legacy will likely be quite positive but also at the same time unremarkable. He was an unexpected choice after the removal of Admiral Art McDonald for allegations of sexual misconduct. Eyre would continually need to manage this fraught issue throughout his time as CDS, especially as a number of other senior leaders would also become snared by allegations and the need to see through wider cultural reforms became even more apparent. He would also become involved in the ongoing COVID-19 efforts, as well as dealing with the challenges of a renewed great power conflict, including overseeing support for Ukraine. Likely the most serious issue he faced, however, was the precipitous decline in the CAF’s military capability and readiness; he was forced to confront the triple-headed challenge of an antiquated equipment base, recruitment and retention, and over-deployment. 

Members of the Canadian Armed Forces stand to attention during a Remembrance Day ceremony in Montreal, Saturday, November 11, 2023. Graham Hughes/The Canadian Press.

Due to the scale of challenges he faced and his adeptness at navigating them, it is difficult to find good precedents to compare to Eyre. The closest in recent memory might be Vice-Admiral Larry Murray, who also came in after the unexpected resignation of his predecessor due to scandal in 1995 and was forced to deal with multiple crises, including the Somalia Inquiry and the continuing post-Cold-War drawdown. Murray handled these issues with a quiet professionalism that was also well-regarded at the time. Unfortunately, the issues of the mid-1990s almost seem quaint given the scale of the challenges that are currently facing the CAF.

Eyre, for his part, has been deft at his position and has built up significant cachet among military members for his leadership. His most significant outward shift has been to become much more vocal and transparent about the state of the CAF while telegraphing some of his policy preferences. This broke with the precedent set by several of his immediate predecessors, who had generally shied away from making similar statements. Eyre seems to have set the tone for a number of other senior military leaders to make similar statements over recent months, like Vice-Admiral Auchterlonie and Vice-Admiral Topshee, concerning the state of the military and the challenges facing it. 

Unfortunately, Eyre’s influence within government seems to have been lower than his public facade suggested. In a number of policy areas, he was seemingly overruled by the political leadership. For example, last Fall Eyre announced the Reconstitution Directive, which sought to limit all nonessential activities the CAF engaged in and cap the current commitments so that the military personnel system could regain its footing and rebuild its manning levels. Yet not 10 months later the government announced a doubling of the Latvian mission, which was precisely the type of stress the directive sought to avoid. 

By design, the CDS should be one of the most important positions within government, commanding the military and its unique organization. In practice, however, modern chiefs have fought to maintain their authority within National Defence. This so-called “defence team” concept is where the civilian deputy minister and the chief sit at opposite ends of a spectrum of responsibilities from administration to command (respectively). There has always been a shifting balance between the two roles, and it is important to note that while the pendulum has not swung dramatically towards the civil side in the current dynamic, it has still shifted towards greater civilian influences, especially surrounding the culture change efforts.

The current political leadership’s governing style has further weakened Eyre’s influence. Instead of setting broader strategies and empowering individuals with the authority to implement decisions, this government tends to prefer a consensus-based approach to policymaking and implementation. Frequently top leadership is absent, and departments and their subunits are forced to fight it out among themselves to determine a policy position. This can be a painstaking and frustrating process that often results in no agreement or a weak consensus that easily fractures when circumstances change.

To get any policies approved, defence officials often had to preemptively build consensus among all other departments and the PMO. In many cases they were successful, but it required inordinate amounts of time to accomplish that was out of proportion to the decision that needed to be made. Eyre seemed to have mixed success at navigating this system. The P-8 procurement decision was one such case. The military was the impetus for the accelerated timeline for the CP-140 replacement and had obtained a rough consensus in the summer of 2022 to push forward with the purchase. Yet it required an additional 16 months to get cabinet’s final decision, which left it up to the last day possible to sign the U.S. government’s formal contractual offer.

With this in mind, it is important to turn back and reflect on the recent public statements made by Eyre and his subordinates. There are generally two reasons behind senior officials making such statements. 

The first is to communicate government policy to the public, to aid in implementation and build support for the decision. The second is to advocate for their own policy views in order to pressure other officials towards their policy preferences. Auchterlonie’s comments about Canada not being the responder of first resort to domestic crises likely is in this category of comment, as is his warning to the Canadian public about its complacency towards the emerging great power conflict. 

In some cases, public statements can be a mix of both objectives, particularly given this government’s consensus-based governing approach, which requires all groups around a table to maintain their support of a decision. Even when the policy is stated, like with the Reconstitution Directive, the political leadership has frequently reversed its previous positions. Thus defence officials need to continually advocate for positions to maintain the support over them.

Eyre’s successor will face the same challenges as it is highly unlikely that the government will reverse its governing and policy-making approaches. The governing Liberals remain generally uninterested in foreign and defence policy, meaning that the next CDS will need to navigate the same challenges as they seek to reorient the military to the unstable international order that confronts Canada. The military also has a number of major procurement programs that are nearing maturation in the next five years. Successfully delivering them is critical for the future viability of the CAF as a military force and for maintaining morale among the troops. 

Finally, Eyre’s retirement comes as a number of high-profile foreign and defence positions are likely to be vacated in the coming months due to the length of time their occupants have held the office. Already the prime minister’s national security advisor and former deputy minister of national defence, Jody Thomas, has announced her retirement. Collectively these will leave a significant void in leadership in defence matters at a sensitive time and will pose an additional challenge. 

Thus the incoming CDS will in some ways face an even more challenging learning curve than when Eyre assumed the position. Many if not all of the same challenges remain: the need for culture change, sagging recruitment/retention, a dynamic and threatening international environment, and a decrepit equipment base. These challenges will take decades to address. Even the next CDS’s successor will be facing them. However, being able to navigate the turgid and languid policymaking process while providing strong leadership for the CAF will be essential to ensure that some of the positive initiatives that emerged during Eyre’s time maintain their momentum moving forward.  

 

Amal Attar-Guzman: Arab Israelis navigate uncertain ground in a post-October 7 Israel

Commentary

This past weekend marked 100 days since the Israel-Hamas conflict began. While there has been a lot of substantive and essential coverage of the experiences of Israeli Jews and Palestinians, another population group that has found itself at the nexus of the conflict but often forgotten is the Arab Israelis.

Nothing better demonstrates this than the controversy surrounding the decision by Israel’s Jewish Culture Department of the Ministry of Education to withdraw funding from the Megiddo Regional Council’s annual Shavuot event because Arab Israeli broadcast journalist Lucy Aharish would be hosting it. 

Aharish, the first Arab Muslim news presenter on a mainstream Hebrew-language television show, is in an interfaith marriage with Fauda Israeli Jewish actor Tashi Halevi. Most notably, she and her husband saved lives during the October 7th attacks by facilitating a private rescue operation

Although Itzik Holevsky, the head of the Megiddo Regional Council, appealed the decision, citing Aharish’s professional and personal experiences that make her qualified to host the event, Itiel Bar Levi, director of the Department for Jewish Culture, rejected it. 

In this Sunday, April 13, 2015 photo, Arab newscaster Lucy Aharish speaks during an interview with The Associated Press in Tel Aviv, Israel. Ariel Schalit/AP Photo.

In Levi’s written reasoning to the council, he explained the funding was retracted due to bureaucratic miscommunication and procedural technicalities. But then he further reiterated the following: “We live in a ‘Jewish State’ and as the Wing of Jewish Culture, it makes sense that a woman who represents mixed marriage cannot represent Jewish culture.”

His comments elicited outrage not only from Aharish and the council but from many Israeli citizens. The Ministry of Education has since refused further comment. 

This situation highlights the complexities of identity and acceptance for Arab Israelis, especially as they navigate a post-October 7th Israel. 

Representing 21 percent of Israel’s population, Arab Israelis are situated in a unique position. Not only do they share ethnic and community ties with Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza (with some even identifying as such) and Arabs across the Middle East more broadly, but they also share national ties with Israeli Jews and other ethnic groups in the state of Israel. 

Arab Israelis are descendents of Palestinian Arabs who remained in Israel when it was founded in the 1948 war in what had been British-ruled Palestine. Hundreds of thousands of their kinsmen fled or were expelled. 

A majority of today’s Arab citizens in Israel are Sunni Muslims, though there are many Christians and Druze as well. Most Israeli cities have either majority Jewish or Arab populations. More than half of Arab Israelis live in the northern parts of the country. 

A December 2023 survey from the Israel Democracy Institute, an independent research group, sought to understand how Arab Israelis have responded to the conflict and see their place in Israeli society more generally. The survey results showcase an interesting mix of trends. 

The biggest finding is that Hamas’ terrorist attacks against Israel and the ensuing conflict have contributed to a rising share of Arab Israelis who now say that they feel a sense of belonging to Israel. More than two-thirds said they feel part of the state of Israel in the survey. That is up from less than half in June 2023 and represents the highest rate since 2004. 

Among Arab Israelis, the Druze community identified the most with the Jewish state (80 percent), with Christians coming in second (73 percent), and Muslims third (62 percent).

Interestingly, the feeling of being a part of the state was stronger among those without higher education—with 75 percent of those without a high school diploma saying that they feel a part of the state—than among those with post-secondary education, with only 54.5 of those with a college degree reporting the same. 

Arab Israelis also strongly support (more than 85 percent) Arab citizens of Israel participating in volunteer efforts during the war, such as helping evacuees or providing medical assistance.

When asked about the recent statement by the leader of Israel’s Ra’am Party, MK Mansour Abbas, that Hamas’ actions on October 7 “do not reflect Arab society, the Palestinian people, and the Islamic nation”, more than 55 percent of Arab Israelis agreed with it, including 53 percent of Muslims. 

As for the current humanitarian crisis in Gaza, nearly 60 percent said that responsibility was shared by Hamas and Israel. The share that attributed sole responsibility to Hamas or Israel was roughly the same at 16 percent and 14.5 percent, respectively. 

A large majority (78 percent) of Arab Israelis say there has been no change in their relations with Israeli Jewish friends or acquaintances. Only 15.5 percent say that these relations have worsened since the start of the conflict. 

Yet, despite feeling a strong kinship with Israel and its society as a whole, 71 percent of Israeli Arabs said they do not feel comfortable expressing themselves on social media, 84 percent are worried about their physical safety, and 84 percent said that they are concerned about their economic security and prospects. More than half (51 percent) say they feel comfortable speaking Arabic in public spaces, but that number is down by 25 percentage points since the start of the conflict. 

One key consideration is that many Arab Israelis have close familial and friendship ties with Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank. As such, there is a great amount of personal loss and difficulty in the background of the current conflict. The survey highlights, for instance, that of Arab Israelis who have family and friends in Gaza and the West Bank, 76.5 percent do not feel comfortable contacting them in the current social climate.