Jul 10, 2018

How NOT to protect national security

That we live in a time obsessed with threats to national security and what to do about those threats is beyond question.  Whether we are talking about terrorism, gun crime, migrant flows, climate change or other risks to the planet and its constituent nations the conversation and debates surrounding the best approaches to meet and resolve these challenges is never far from our attention.  Pick up any newspaper or visit any news Web site on any given day and you will be hard pressed to find a time where there are no stories about this threat or that.  It is the ‘new normal’.

There are, however, good ways and bad ways to have that discussion and good actions and bad actions to lower the threat level.  This blog will focus on two instances of bad decisions and the impact that these have had both in the immediate and the longer term.  Spoiler alert, treating issues that really aren’t national security ones as such will undermine public support for authorities and endanger understanding and buy-in when real threats arise and governments seek to sell their responses to them.

First to Turkey which many observers believe is descending into a one-man authoritarian state under President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who just one a national election held  under questionable conditions.  Mr. Erdogan is now a leader with sweeping executive powers, powers that will allow him to crack down on his perceived enemies.  One of his first post-election moves was to sack more than 18,000 police officers, soldiers and academics the day before the new executive presidency came into force.  The reason for the firings?  Suspected links to groups that “act against national security.”  I read that to mean those who follow Turkish spiritual leader Fethullah Gulen, a man once an Erdogan ally who is now public enemy #1 in Turkey.

In fairness to Mr. Erdogan there was a coup attempt in 2016 that may or may not have been linked to the ‘Gulenists’ as they have been called.  Any state faced with such action has no choice but to counter it, and Turkey is no exception.  Except that the response, nearly two years strong at this point, has led to the dismissal and arrest of hundreds of thousands of Turkish citizens, the shuttering of countless media outlets and the imposition of a state of emergency that may or may not be renewed in a week’s time.  All in the name of ‘national security’.  In other words, a real threat has been used to create an atmosphere of fear where everything is viewed through the national security filter.  It is not hard to see why cynicism begins to reign among the common folk.

The second example is much closer to home for Canadians as it involves our neighbour to the south.  The Trump administration has imposed punishing tariffs on Canadian exports of aluminum and steel to the US and justified them under ‘national security’.  Mr. Trump’s wonky relationship with the truth notwithstanding, how can the import of Canadian raw materials constitute a ‘national security’ threat to the US?  Inquiring minds want to know.  It is clear that this is a purely economic decision made to protect American jobs (supposedly) and has absolutely nothing to do with a threat to the US homeland.

What, then, will the publics in Turkey and the US make of all this?  It is probable that they will eventually see, if they have not already, that these are ruses to hide other issues.  Smart people will realise that the ‘national security’ label is simply being used and abused where it does not fit.  Who knows what impact this will have on an electorate which already has low confidence in government.

I do fear that we will soon be in a ‘boy who cried wolf’ scenario.  The more that language describing threat is used for situations that are nothing of the sort the more the public will ignore future warnings, including real ones.  Nations will doubt when agencies such as CSIS or the FBI or the MIT (Turkey’s security service) speak of threats to national security: there is already a substantial level of distrust in what these organisations do and an embellishment and exaggeration of the threat stream won’t help.

In the end leaders have to play the national security card carefully in order to maintain the confidence of their citizenry.  It sure seems to me that Messrs. Erdogan and Trump are playing a dummy hand.