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Shaping Strategy: The Civil-Military Politics of Strategic Assessment

Shaping Strategy: The Civil-Military Politics of Strategic Assessment by Risa A. Brooks. Princeton University Press, 2008, 320 pp.

The attention-grabbing headline of an April 2006 Time magazine article shouted: “Revolt of the Generals.” Focused on criticisms of former secretary of defense Donald Rumsfeld by retired general officers, the article highlighted some of the enduring tensions between civilian leaders and the military and underscored longstanding concerns regarding civil-military relations in the United States. How should Americans judge civil-military relations? What constitutes the standard for “good” relations? How does this relationship affect strategy?

Risa Brooks, an assistant professor of political science at Northwestern University, offers answers to these perennial questions and more in Shaping Strategy. Brooks explores how the relationship between civilian and military leaders affects strategic assessment, which she characterizes as the ways in which states calculate their objectives, evaluate the means to achieve those interests, and estimate their ability to succeed. She argues that foreign policy failures usually result from misjudgments in the strategic assessment process that stem from dysfunctional civil-military relations: “Through their effects on strategic assessment, civil-military relations ultimately condition interstate interaction” (p. 273).

Brooks begins by describing her theory. She dissects civil-military relations using two variables. The first reflects the degree to which civilian and military leaders disagree on issues, security concerns, and how the military orders its affairs. The second variable is the balance of power between civilians and the military within a given state structure—namely who makes the decisions and how disputes are resolved. The variables interact to create the dynamics of strategic assessment.

To highlight the array of problems arising from dysfunctional civil-military relations, Brooks subdivides the larger strategic assessment processes into four parts. The first problem area occurs in the sharing of information between military and civilian leaders about plans and capabilities. The second area she terms strategic coordination—the ability of civilian and military leaders to assess alternatives and debate the costs and risks of various options. Structural competence, or the military’s ability to evaluate honestly its capability to carry out the desired operations, is the third component of strategic assessment. The authorization process—who is in charge and the method for approving strategies and plans—makes up the final portion of strategic assessment.

Brooks maintains that when civilian and military leaders share closely aligned preferences and civilians are in charge, the obstacles to strategic assessment are low, making rigorous debate both possible and functional. The four attributes all contribute positively to sound strategy: civilian leaders and the military share information freely, there is robust debate over alternatives, the military can perform its tasks well, and civilians clearly make the final decision about what to do. By contrast, when civilian and military leaders share power but differ on what to do, strategic assessment suffers. Perhaps Brooks’ most surprising inference posits that the sharing of power contributes to failures in strategic assessment, even when there is little preference divergence.

Brooks proves her theory using a broad range of case studies to highlight the universality of her ideas. This is the clearest and most compelling part of the book, emphasizing the points raised in the theoretical chapters and providing vivid examples of the issues free of the political science jargon. Brooks’ most in-depth study concerns civil-military relations in Egypt, comparing civil-military relations under Pres. Abdul Nasser during the 1967 Six-Day War with Pres. Anwar Sadat and the 1973 Yom Kippur War and the resulting peace talks. These two chapters offer a sobering look into how corrosive and ineffectual civil-military relations affect a nation’s choices. These examples offer insight into Egyptian military affairs and highlight Sadat’s deft use of military power to achieve political objectives.

The author supplements the Egyptian case with six briefer evaluations, including Great Britain and Germany before the First World War; Great Britain during the First World War; Turkey in the late 1990s, during and immediately after its first Islamist prime minister; Pakistan in the late 1990s and its decision making during the Kargil crisis; and, finally, the United States planning for postwar stabilization prior to the invasion of Iraq in 2003.

While Brooks’ conclusions are not overly surprising, her treatment stands out through her detailed analysis of the specific ways dysfunctional civil-military relations affect strategic choices and implementation. The Egyptian case, for instance, exposes how this discord affected everything in the military from the selection of leaders for promotion to self-evaluations of their ability to fight. Brooks predicts that the most dangerous states are those in which civilian and military leaders share power but disagree over internal or security matters. These states, she maintains, are more likely to miscalculate when going to war because they are prone to missteps in strategic assessment. While an important observation, predicting when these disagreements will cause problems remains difficult and much easier to assess after the fact.

For military and civilian policy makers alike, Shaping Strategy offers a primer on the importance of civilian-military relations. While vital for accurate strategic assessments, Brooks maintains that civilian control alone is not enough. She argues that both the type and the character of the dialogue between civilian and military leaders and the quality of their interactions are equally important. In this, her conclusions echo Eliot Cohen’s idea of an “unequal dialogue” discussed in Supreme Command (Free Press, 2002). In short, the quality of the debate is the best measure of healthy civil-military relations, not the absence of friction or disagreement between civilian and military leaders.

Brooks outlines an important, if often overlooked, conclusion about civil-military relations: the “best” outcome occurs when civilian leaders tolerate and listen to divergent views before making decisions and military leaders state their views without fear of retribution and then forcefully carry out the decisions of the civilian leaders whether they are in line with the military recommendations or not. Such a process will not ensure success; there are simply too many contingencies in international affairs to claim that any process can provide that. There is no perfect process, no permanent solution to ensuring functional civil-military relations and accurate strategic assessment. The best option is to increase the odds that it will happen. This work offers a glimpse at what can happen if we do not improve the odds.

Thomas E. Griffith, PhD

National War College

"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."

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