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Diversionary War: Domestic Unrest and International Conflict

Diversionary War: Domestic Unrest and International Conflict by Amy Oakes. Stanford University Press, 2012, 265 pp.

Amy Oakes’s monograph seeks to prove that national leaders distract their populace from domestic issues by initiating foreign conflicts. Oakes, an associate professor of government at the College of William and Mary, claims Diversionary War to be the first work examining a “substitutable menu of options” from which leaders choose to respond to domestic unrest. Unlike other works in the field, she expands on the “relative utility of diversionary war” as a leadership choice among many options. Other scholars in the field have only focused on leaders’ recorded decisions without accounting for the full range of options prior to decision making.

Oakes’s strongest point is the transition from the traditional linear (A to B to C) study of decision making to a menu of policy options. For example, in response to domestic unrest, a national leader may choose diversionary war, repression, economic reforms, or foreign intervention. The menu allows for the study of environmental context on leadership decisions and even includes a category to study factors dissuading leaders from certain options.

Oakes expands upon her thesis through 13 supporting hypotheses that examine the effect of situation and environment upon the decisional menu. Hypothesis one asserts, “Princely states and pauper states are equally likely to stage diversionary spectacles,” while hypothesis two places the blame upon the pauper state as more likely to stage an actual diversionary war. Although in opposition, these hypotheses are necessary to form a baseline for the menu analysis. The remaining 11 hypotheses follow a similar dichotomy.

Oakes’s examples of diversionary spectacles are relevant and wide ranging, aptly proving her thesis. Each hypothesis includes multiple case studies that cover a broad cross section of regions and eras, including US president James Buchanan’s military expeditions into Missouri and Utah and the Peruvian government’s fight against Sendero Luminoso (Shining Path) Maoist insurgents during the 1970s and 1980s. Many of these conflicts are not studied within basic and intermediate professional military education, so their inclusion supports Oakes’s thesis beyond more familiar or obvious examples.

The complex approach of the book could accomplish the same goal with a cleaner organization and simplified format. It takes time to grasp the scope of the complex format. While the introduction does outline Oakes’s intentions, it is bogged down at times by inapplicable examples.

A glaring limitation of the book is the omission of human unpredictability from any discussion of contextual decision making. Humans are dynamic creatures who do not always follow checklists or menus. Potentially unstable actors pressured by contextual elements may prove extremely difficult to quantify. If the book attempts to bolster the policy maker into an oracle of theoretical outcomes, its blind spot is psychology. This internal context can be expanded to include the external pressures of crisis action planning versus deliberate plans. Anyone exposed to the high-stress environments of operational decision making in wartime can easily attest to the unpredictability of the human mind. By extension, it may be difficult to predict decisions by individuals originating from value systems and logic completely different from Western norms. This shortfall illustrates the dangers of mirror imaging.

Oakes’s conclusion according to the menu of options and hypotheses is that diversionary war does not work. In fact, the historical examples identified reveal that diversionary war does not quell domestic instability in the long term but actually increases domestic unrest. Despite this record, national leaders continue to choose the option. This concept of a decision-making menu can be a valuable tool for policy makers, advisors, and strategic leaders who seek to avoid future diversionary wars. Even with a few limitations, Oakes’s decision-making framework is laudable for acknowledging context. Environment and paths not chosen are often as vital to the leadership decision process as the choice history remembers.

Maj Matthew G. Butler, USAF
Travis AFB, CA

"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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