HomeAU PressBook ReviewsDisplay Review

Air University Press

US Defense Politics: The Origins of Security Policy

US Defense Politics: The Origins of Security Policy by Harvey M. Sapolsky, Eugene Gholz, and Caitlin Talmadge. Routledge, 2009, 191 pp.


In US Defense Politics, Prof. Harvey Sapolsky of MIT, Prof. Eugene Gholz of the LBJ School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas–Austin, and PhD candidate Caitlin Talmadge of MIT provide a detailed look into politics affecting our national defense. The authors offer a brief history lesson on the military before addressing four questions characteristic of US policy making: “(1) What shall be the division between public and private responsibilities in each particular policy area? (2) What shall be the division between planning and the market? (3) What is to be centralized and what is to be decentralized in each policy area? (4) And what questions should be settled by experts, on technocratic grounds, and what should be settled by political means, representing the will of the people?” (p. 8).

Sapolsky, Gholz, and Talmadge express a need for blending private and public responsibilities in a manner that benefits both the government and its citizens. For example, though specifically designed for the military, the global positioning system (GPS) has proven even more useful to civilians. The authors argue that more such mutually beneficial acquisitions would ease any political turmoil with regard to the necessary research and development.

As for planning and the market, they examine a free-market approach to US defense, pointing out, for instance, objections raised by the other military services to the Air Force’s desire to control the development of remotely piloted aircraft (RPA). The authors indicate that such a stranglehold on the RPA market adversely affects the mission due to a lack of competition. Instead, “[RPA] development across multiple services would be more conducive to innovation and would create a more diverse set of capabilities for the future” (p. 160).

Addressing the question of centralization and decentralization within the defense structure, the authors note that in times of conflict, centralization is paramount, insofar as two power pyramids exist: the military, acting as an adviser, and civilians, implementing policy. Having each power in a defined role allows top leadership to effectively carry out the mission of defending our nation. Decentralization, however, “encourages the development and presentation of new ideas, but it does not encourage the implementation of any” (p. 163). Ultimately, after the military branches compete with each other, civilian leadership considers their ideas and decides which path to choose, thus reaffirming the need for centralization: “What is unproductive is to divide the DOD up into civilian versus military camps, between an administration-dominated corps on the one hand and the permanent bureaucracy on the other” (p. 164).

Lastly, the book points out that determining whether to have experts or politicians settle certain questions actually involves a balance of power. For example, whereas defense experts argue the need for sturdier tanks, faster aircraft, or larger ships, politicians realize that other initiatives, such as providing medical service for military family members, would have a more productive effect on the overall capability of national defense. Consequently, in this instance, authorizing less expensive fifth-generation tanks, aircraft, or ships allows for a stronger all-volunteer force.

Emphasizing the importance of maintaining harmony between the civilian and military arenas in defense politics, the authors single out Robert McNamara as one of the worst secretaries of defense in history. One need only examine statements by the former secretary to discover a lack of this desired cohesiveness: “I see my position here as being that of a leader, not a judge. I am here to originate and stimulate new ideas and programs, not just to referee arguments and harmonize interests” (p. 100).

Regrettably, the book does have its flaws. Take, for example, the section on Pres. George W. Bush, the Iraq war, and weapons of mass destruction (WMD): “No WMD were found, not even a warehouse or two full of chemical shells, which nearly every intelligence around the world had believed existed” (p. 143). Since this book is about defense politics, the authors should have examined more carefully the background of intelligence reports. Even though intelligence agencies continuously reported the lack of evidence necessary to provide legal grounds for an invasion of Iraq, politicians in Washington pressured the analysts into producing vague reports that one could read either way. After all, in some cases, politicians interpret intelligence reports as they see fit and then create policies.

All things considered, US Defense Politics is relevant and worthwhile for the Air Force community. Specifically, I recommend it to all senior noncommissioned officers and junior officers as well as to other service members who desire a fundamental understanding of how politics affects the military. The fact that each of the 12 chapters includes questions for discussion and recommendations for additional reading makes it a valuable tool for mentors who are developing the leaders of tomorrow.


SSgt Justin N. Theriot, USAF

McChord AFB, Washington

"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."

Strategic Studies Quarterly (SSQ) and the Air & Space Power Journal (ASPJ) publish book reviews to inform readers and enhance the content of articles in the journals.