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Shaping Strategy:
The Civil-Military Politics of Strategic Assessment
Risa Brooks

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Chapter One


IN MAY 1967 EGYPT’S President Nasser initiated a crisis with Israel that would end in a war he was bound to lose. The crisis began when Nasser received a report that Israel was sending forces to its border with Syria. Despite soon learning the report was false, Nasser nevertheless escalated tensions by requesting the United Nations withdraw its forces stationed in the Sinai Peninsula to make way for deployments of Egyptian troops.1 Shortly thereafter, on May 22, Egypt’s president took the even more dire step of closing the Straits of Tiran to Israeli shipping. On the morning of June 5, Israel attacked Egypt’s airfields. Egypt’s role in the ensuing war ended just a day and a half later in a devastating defeat that changed the complexion of Middle East politics forever.

Curiously, despite the potential stakes involved, Egypt’s decisions to initiate and later hold firm to its demands that spring were taken in an internal environment ill-prepared for the gravity of the situation. Decision making was reportedly sorely lacking on Egypt’s political and military situation. Historical accounts reveal that Nasser was competing with his military chief for control of military policy. Intelligence was politicized, and coordination between political and military authorities inadequate. As a result, and by his own admission, Nasser went to war with a poor assessment of how miserably Egypt’s military would fare in the conflict and the devastation his regime would bear as a result.

In striking contrast, Nasser’s successor, Anwar Sadat, was able to plan and implement a series of political and military initiatives in the 1970s aimed at achieving his security goals. He developed, in consultation with military authorities, a sophisticated, limited war plan based on analysis of Egypt’s strategic situation. He was able repeatedly to overrule his military chiefs and implement unpopular plans, including the controversial plan for the October 1973 war, subsequent disengagement agreements, and a peace treaty with Israel. Unlike Nasser, Sadat appeared to benefit from a decision-making environment that allowed him and his military leaders to evaluate critically Egypt’s strategic and military options and their consistency with political objectives.

Why are some leaders, at some times, able to assess their capabilities and reconcile their political and military objectives? Why are others prone to poor estimates and disintegrated policies? In sum, why do some states excel at strategic assessment while others fail miserably?

A major reason is the nature of states’ civil-military relations. Domestic relations between political and military leaders shape the institutional processes in which leaders evaluate their strategies in interstate conflicts. Those processes affect how leaders appraise their state’s military options, plans, and the broader diplomatic and political constraints that bear on them. In short, civil-military relations affect how states engage in strategic assessment.

Strategic assessment is vital to state security and to international peace and stability. Egypt provides a vivid illustration why. Nasser’s poor assessment of his capabilities and his devastating loss in the ensuing war in 1967 exposed to the world the failings of his regime and its military. Nasser’s claim to regional leadership was irrevocably damaged. The war the leader precipitated also ended with Israel occupying critical areas of Syria, Palestine, and Egypt—areas today, with the exception of the latter, that remain the subject of dispute and a catalyst for tensions in the region. In the 1970s, in contrast, Egypt’s strengths in strategic assessment proved an enormous advantage to Anwar Sadat. Egypt got the Sinai back, repositioned itself in the Western camp, and in the process signed the first peace treaty between Israel and an Arab state.

Today the United States must contend with the results of its own debacle of strategic assessment: the failure to evaluate adequately the postwar security environment and prepare accordingly for the 2003 Iraq War. Many analysts focus on rivalries between the State Department and Pentagon or on Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld’s abrasive personality to explain weaknesses in postwar plans. Less understood are how civil-military relations predisposed the country to poor strategic assessment. As I argue in chapter 7, the underlying structure of power and preferences in U.S. civil-military relations was a major cause of inadequate planning for the security vacuum after the fall of Saddam Hussein’s regime. The absence of comprehensive contingency plans and the ensuing breakdown of security alienated the population and fueled a nascent insurgency against American forces.

In these cases, as in the other empirical studies in this volume, failures of strategic assessment had enormous consequences for the states involved. In this book I explain why these failures occur and discuss the conditions under which we are likely to get better strategic assessment.

The Argument in Brief

In its approach to studying strategic assessment, this book bridges the disciplines of comparative and international politics. It begins with insights from comparative politics about the importance of the military’s domestic relationship with political leaders. Comparativists have long recognized that the balance of power and intensity of substantive disagreements between political and military leaders can differ significantly across and within states, over time. These moreover can affect the military’s bargaining power within ruling regimes and consequently the institutional features of states, broadly defined and specifically in security-related areas.2 Civil-military relations are vital from this perspective in understanding the internal features of states.

Janus-faced, civil-military relations also have a significant international dimension. During interstate conflicts, military leaders provide advice to a country’s political leader about the state’s relative capabilities. They guide him or her in assessing the utility of different military plans and options. Military leaders have important informational advantages about these issues, both as a result of their expertise in “the management of violence” and because of their regular contact with the military organization. Political leaders are in charge of a much broader array of policy concerns—not just military and security issues—and therefore even if they, for personal or professional reasons, are well versed in military matters, must rely on those who run the armed forces on a daily basis for information and analysis.3

A state’s processes for strategic assessment intersect these domestic and international facets of civil-military relations. Clashes over security and other corporate issues and the balance of power between military and political leaders affect the routines through which they share and analyze information, consult with one another, and make decisions at the apex of the state. These processes, in turn, constitute the environment in which political leaders evaluate and select their strategies in interstate disputes—the institutions in which they engage in strategic assessment.

This book explores the causes and consequences of these institutions for strategic assessment. Theoretically, it seeks to explain why states’ assessment institutions vary, in the process drawing on the insights of comparative and other scholarship on civil-military relations. In turn, empirically, in each of eight case studies, the book demonstrates how these processes mattered for understanding outcomes of critical importance to international relations.

As I elaborate in chapter 2, in developing this book’s theory about how civil-military relations affect strategic assessment, I rely on what I term a “distributional approach”: an approach that emphasizes the effects of individuals’ and groups’ distributional conflicts on the features of institutions. Institutions in this view emerge from the interactions of actors, with varying resources and interests, competing to advance rules and structures that advantage their preferred outcomes. In the current context, I anticipate that studying underlying conflicts between political and military leaders and how these are shaped by their preferences and relative power will illuminate the processes through which they interact in strategic assessment.

Specifically, two variables are key to my theory. The first, the intensity of preference divergence over corporate, professional, or security issues, determines military and political leaders’ underlying incentives to contest processes essential to strategic assessment. The second causal variable, the balance of civil-military power, shapes how these conflicts are resolved. Both variables interact, generating particular “logics” that drive the emergence of institutional features in assessment within the state at any given time.

In my theory, I disaggregate strategic assessment into four constituent attributes, or sets of institutional processes: routines for information sharing between political and military leaders about military capabilities and plans, which vary in whether they facilitate fluid exchange or compartmentalize information; strategic coordination, or the structures in existence for assessing alternative political-military strategies, and whether or not they promote rigorous debate about costs and risks and help to coordinate military activity with political and diplomatic objectives and constraints; the military’s structural competence in monitoring its own internal activities and procedures for evaluating foreign militaries and the degree to which these promote self-critical analysis about the state’s capabilities and sound analysis about its adversaries’ forces; and the authorization process, or the mechanisms for approving and vetoing political-military strategy and activity, which vary in whether they promote clearly defined, coherent decision-making processes or contested, ambiguous procedures. Each category reflects formal as well as informal processes; in fact, the “institutions” associated with assessment are much more likely to be unwritten patterns of interaction, conventions, and routines than formalized or legislated phenomena.4

In chapter 2 I hypothesize about how various configurations of power and preference divergence affect these four attributes and therefore the overall quality of strategic assessment in the state. I anticipate, for example, that when political leaders dominate and preference divergence is low, such that divergences over security and corporate issues are not entrenched and profound, important obstacles to strategic assessment are absent. Both political and military leaders lack incentives to contest assessment processes. This allows relatively functional institutions to emerge. Consequently, information sharing should be relatively fluid. Strategic coordination is eased as political dominance facilitates the integration in advisory processes of the military with the political offices of the state. The authorization process is also clearly defined, providing structure to decision making. Overall, in these environments debate between political and military leaders can flourish, without risk of it devolving into disputes over control of decision making, or being undermined by mutual alienation born of deep-seated and enduring differences over corporate or security issues: civil-military relations provide the structural preconditions for the sort of rigorous deliberation essential to assessing state strategy. These are the best conditions for engaging in strategic assessment.

The worst conditions occur when political and military leaders are sharing power and their preferences diverge. Assessment institutions become implicated in underlying substantive disputes between political and military leaders and themselves become objects of competition; each side tries to ensure that routines and conventions of interaction protect their preferred strategies or policy outcomes. Military leaders guard access to their private information and favor institutional processes that allow them to do so, compromising routines for information sharing. The authorization process also becomes convoluted as political and military leaders vie for the right to approve and veto military plans and strategy. Strategic coordination deteriorates as military leaders grow wary of participating in joint forums with political representatives and engaging in open-ended analyses. Intraregime competition also corrupts the military’s organizational processes for intelligence and internal monitoring. Consequently, in interstate disputes capabilities estimates are apt to be poor, and the analysis of military options and their integration with political objectives superficial. Leaders also struggle to make authoritative decisions about state strategy and ensure they are implemented. These states are devastatingly unprepared to manage their international relations.

I anticipate strategic assessment will be also be poor—but not quite as atrocious—when power is shared and preference divergence is low. Although military and political leaders have few incentives to try to control access to their private information about security issues, and therefore information sharing is relatively unproblematic, the military’s autonomy from the diplomatic apparatus of the state weakens joint consultative entities, undermining strategic coordination. Civil-military relations also generate ambiguities in authorization processes, as ultimate rights of veto and approval over military activity remain ill-defined. Together these weaknesses complicate both the quality of deliberation and clarity of decision making about state strategy in international disputes.

Other civil-military relations generate divergent trends and, overall, fall between the extremes in their competencies in strategic assessment. For example, political dominance and high preference divergence generates clarity in the authorization process and provides tools to political leaders that mitigate problems in information sharing. Improvements in structural competence are also possible. However, the oversight methods leaders employ in this setting to protect their interests can truncate dialogue with military leaders and therefore compromise strategic coordination. The balance sheet for the four attributes of assessment is therefore mixed in these states: we should observe clear strengths in three critical areas essential to gathering and sharing information and making decisions, but also notable weaknesses in one—in the comprehensiveness and rigor of debate in advisory forums.

Finally, cases in which the military dominates politically also exhibit strengths as well as notable weaknesses. Here, regardless of the intensity of preference divergence with political leaders over substantive issues, much of the evaluative and decision-making process is internalized within the military organization. This clarifies the authorization process, giving the military ultimate control over political-military strategy. One negative byproduct of this setting, however, is that analysis of these strategies may be insulated from the political apparatus of the state, which impairs strategic coordination. In short, a specific pattern in assessment should be observed in these settings: flaws in how military and political considerations are integrated in deliberative processes, but strengths in the capacity to decide and implement strategy in interstate conflicts. See figure 1.1 for an overview of these hypotheses.

In chapter 2 I develop the theory and explain these hypotheses in greater detail. Before proceeding, however, I elaborate on the importance of studying strategic assessment.

The Problem of Assessment: Why Study It?

Why should scholars study strategic assessment? The main reason is to understand why states sometimes succumb to strategic failure. Analytical completeness requires studying successes as well as failures, but the latter are especially important if we are to understand the causes of war and conflict in the international arena. Accordingly, in this section I highlight a number of particularly dangerous weaknesses in strategy and pathological international outcomes that may result from poor evaluation and decision making at the civil-military apex.

First, poor strategic assessment can generate failure by undermining states’ estimates of their relative military capabilities. In crises and wars, leaders are often tasked with comparing their military capabilities with their adversaries’ and allies’ resources. They rely on these estimates to judge the likely outcome of armed confrontation, and therefore to evaluate the utility of alternative political strategies they might adopt in the dispute. Such capabilities estimates are complicated endeavors and involve comparing everything from a state’s own and its adversaries’ material resources (weapons and equipment), communications, logistics, and other systems to intangibles such as training and leadership. Given this complexity, no assessment structure can provide complete and infallible information about a state’s capabilities. The precise outcomes of war are never fully knowable a priori. But estimates can be better and worse. Some can be based on more complete and comprehensive information and intelligence, and more rigorous and open-ended analysis. In particular, where military and political leaders withhold private information from each other, fail to analyze that information, or have poor information about their own and adversaries’ capabilities in the first place, these capabilities estimates are likely to be seriously flawed.

These capabilities misestimates are important, in turn, because they can predispose leaders toward destabilizing strategies in international conflicts. Following the logic of bargaining models of war, for example, if political leaders overestimate their capabilities and make unwarranted demands in a dispute, their opponents must choose between granting those undeserved concessions or fighting a war in which they anticipate they will perform relatively well.5 In effect, the intransigent state pushes its adversary over its threshold for war. As this and other theoretical literature that stresses the importance of “miscalculating” capabilities suggests, when states misjudge their military power they put themselves at risk for war. Because civil-military relations and states’ assessment institutions can affect their propensities to misestimate their capabilities, they are implicated as a cause of those risky strategies.

Second, poor strategic assessment can create problems in anticipating the political constraints that govern the use of force in an international dispute. One attribute of assessment in particular, strategic coordination, reflects how much the broader international political, diplomatic, and economic context is incorporated into evaluations of a state’s military strategy and capabilities. Where strategic coordination is poor, leaders may discount the regional repercussions and other possible political side effects within a target state of using military action, or a particular strategy, to resolve a dispute. Take, for example, a case in which a state is contemplating launching a military offensive in a highly polarized and competitive region of the world. Although feasible militarily, the plan also threatens to destabilize the region or inspire third parties to intervene. If the military and political apparatus of the state is poorly coordinated, these broader strategic responses by other states may be discounted or poorly analyzed. The technical/operational details of implementing the military action may trump its political ramifications in the analytical process. The state consequently risks provoking unanticipated hostility from its competitors. It risks finding itself in a longer or costlier war than originally anticipated.6

Third, a state’s process of strategic assessment can compromise its ability to translate political goals into supportive military strategies and activities. The two pathologies discussed above—capabilities misestimates and disintegration due to neglect of political constraints on military action—stem from weaknesses in information sharing and strategic coordination, and therefore the deliberative dimension of strategic assessment. This third problem originates in weaknesses in its decision-making component; it derives from ambiguities in the authorization process—from deadlock over the processes for choosing among alternative military options in interstate disputes.

At the end of the day, when the deliberative process has been exhausted, state leaders need to make definitive decisions about strategy if the state is going to pursue a clear course of action. When military and political leaders disagree and neither can overrule the other—neither can outvote nor out-veto the other—they may revert to a least common denominator compromise, or simply react to events on the ground without ever articulating a principled course of action. In sum, where the authorization process is contested, states may be unable to pursue coherent strategies in international crises.

Last, ambiguity in a state’s processes for strategic assessment can complicate the peaceful resolution of disputes by increasing the chance that other states will miscalculate its priorities in an interstate conflict. Where a state’s preferences are hard to read—perhaps because competition between political and military leaders makes it difficult to monitor how decisions are being made in the security arena—its adversary may misjudge its resolve and make overly ambitious demands in a dispute. The crisis may escalate. Conversely, if a state has an extremely clear authorization process, in which the decision-making process is “readable,” it might bolster the credibility of its threats and promises in a dispute: adversaries can assess for themselves the level of commitment a state has to an issue or course of action. In short, through their effects on the information they supply (or fail to supply) about its goals, a state’s own strategic assessment processes can shape its adversaries’ strategies in international disputes and therefore the outcomes of their strategic interactions (see table 1.1).

The Role of International Outcomes in the Causal Chain

The primary focus of this book is explaining why states vary in their processes for strategic assessment. These assessment institutions are important, as I articulate above, because they can lead to strategic failure; they generate poorly informed and executed military strategies and activities in a state’s international relations. In turn, the state risks its own security, it allies’ safety, and potentially the stability of the international arena.

To underscore the international importance of these internal processes, in each empirical case study, after exploring the effects of civil-military politics on strategic assessment, I discuss how those processes shaped the state’s strategy and international relations in a significant interstate dispute. Once again, I do not expect that poor process always yields pathological policy and poor international outcomes. States can and do get lucky in muddling through conflicts even when they make tremendous mistakes in internal assessment. Their adversaries, for example, may make mistakes that compensate for a state’s own strategic failings, rendering a happy ending to an otherwise precarious situation. Alternatively, even states with solid assessment and well-informed strategy can lose wars and fail in their international ambitions. Good strategic assessment does not render a state infallible. It just lessens its chances of making large strategic errors.

In fact, in nearly every case in this book there is a clear correlation between the quality of strategic assessment, the incidence of well-informed and well-executed strategy, and international success or failure. In those cases in which the causal link between assessment, strategy, and outcomes is weak, intervening factors often shaped internal or international developments in ways that neutralized the advantages and disadvantages afforded by strategic assessment. In short, this book suggests that pathologies in how states evaluate and choose their strategies merit our attention if we want to understand the sources of conflict and stability in the international arena. Understanding when states are prone to weaknesses (and strengths) in strategic assessment is critical (see fig. 1.2).

The Study of Strategic Assessment in Political Science

In advancing a theory of civil-military relations and strategic assessment, this book makes several important contributions to scholarship in both areas. First, it underscores the importance of states’ civil-military relations for understanding their international relations. Of course, scholars have long recognized that interaction between political and military authorities is vital to the management of interstate conflicts. Nevertheless, most studies analyze military doctrine and activity as the principal outcomes of civil-military relations (Snyder 1991a; Posen 1984; Sagan 2000; Avant 1994; Kier 1997; Biddle and Zirkle 1996; Legro 1995; Van Evera 1991, 2001; Belkin 2005; Zisk 1993). In contrast, this study links those relations to a relatively unexamined, yet critical, outcome: the processes through which political and military leaders consult and choose their state’s strategies in international disputes.7 It identifies the conditions under which civil-military relations produce better and worse processes for strategic assessment. Moreover, it does so in a comparative context. The book analyzes strategic assessment in a variety of historical and contemporary cases, representing diverse regions and regime types.

In the process the book also speaks to a central debate in international relations: whether democracies as a class of states are inherently better than others at evaluating their international environments. Recent scholarship argues that democracies should trump autocracies in strategic assessment (Reiter and Stam 2002; also see Peceny et al. 2002). This book is skeptical of that finding. Democracies too can regularly succumb tostrategic failures. The reasons have to do with the nature of their civil-military relations. As I elaborate in chapter 2, even when political leaders clearly dominate their militaries, as is commonly observed in democracies, intense, underlying conflict over substantive issues can truncate debate in advisory processes and invite serious strategic failure.

While questioning the inherent advantages of democracy, this book also challenges the corollary of the democratic-supremacy thesis: that autocracies are necessarily inferior at strategic assessment. In fact, autocracies should, at times, perform perfectly well at strategic assessment. When political leaders are solidly in charge and their preferences converge with those of military leaders on security issues, as, for example, in North Vietnam during the Vietnam War, they can cooperate in advisory processes: Civil-military relations pose no obstacle to sound strategic assessment.8 Holding all other factors equal, these states are quite capable of evaluating their international environments and military capabilities.

In fact one contribution of this study is to demonstrate how states can vary in strategic assessment with shifts in their civil-military relations independent of their regime type. The empirical studies show, for example, how the quality of strategic assessment varied considerably in Egypt in the mid1960s and early 1970s with changes in the civil-military balance of power, despite the fact that the regime remained autocratic throughout the period. The case study of Britain exhibits similar variation: Civil-military relations generated major differences in strategic assessment prior to and then during the First World War in the democratic state.

Finally, the book speaks to scholars interested in how variation in executive advisory processes affects foreign policymaking or crisis decision making. The extant scholarship generally points to psychological phenomena and leaders’ personalities to explain why consultative processes vary. For example, one strand of theorizing found in studies of American foreign policymaking emphasizes how a president’s personal style affects how that president manages foreign policy advisors in international conflicts.9

This study stresses an alternative cause of strategic assessment: states’ civil-military relations. It argues that relations between political and military leaders shape consultative processes, independent of a leader’s personal proclivities in managing his or her subordinates. Leaders may “want” a particular advisory system—one that provides them with comprehensive information and affords them definitive decision-making power—but political realities may militate against it.10 This was certainly true for Egypt’s president Nasser in the mid-1960s.

A second strand of theorizing focuses on how cognitive, emotional, and other psychological stimuli affect how leaders process incoming information and decide strategy in crisis.11 These approaches often assume that information is objectively available to leaders and the obstacle to good strategic assessment resides in the individual’s processing of it. But information may not be so readily available to leaders in the first place because of domestic political factors, like states’ civil-military relations. In turn, even the most well-adjusted, seasoned, and lucid leader is going to have problems judging his options when he has poor information and analysis at the start. Conversely, a sound assessment process could help counteract leaders’ tendencies to resist new data, react emotionally, or otherwise compartmentalize and interpret information through preexisting cognitive schema.12 Strategic assessment processes in fact may be an important remedy to these psychological pressures in decision making. Variation in assessment institutions may, moreover, explain why the cognitive and emotional problems highlighted by the literature in international relations often seem more acute in some cases than others.13

Plan of the Book

In the next chapter I elaborate the theory of civil-military politics and strategic assessment introduced above. I begin by orienting the argument theoretically, explaining my “distributional approach,” and then discussing the causal variables, power and preference divergence, as well as the dependent variable, strategic assessment. Hypotheses about how strategic assessment varies in five civil-military settings follow. I conclude chapter 2 with the study’s research design. Especially crucial, there I lay out the rationale for choosing the empirical cases on which I focus in this book and explaining how these control for alternative explanations and provide coverage for all the major hypotheses introduced in chapter 2.

Chapter 3 begins the first of two comprehensive studies of Egypt’s civil-military relations and strategic assessment that constitute the empirical core of this book. It analyzes the period under Gamal Abdel Nasser in the early and mid-1960s, before the 1967 Arab-Israeli War. Chapter 4 picks up the story with the accession of Anwar Sadat as president in 1970 and examines strategic assessment in Egypt in the ensuing decade. In the next three chapters I undertake a series of six briefer studies, which are intended to complement my research on Egypt. I focus in chapter 3 on three cases: Britain and Germany before the First World War, and Britain during the war. Chapter 6 contains two studies of Pakistan and Turkey in the latter 1990s. Chapter 7 applies my theory to U.S. war planning for the 2003 Iraq War, explaining how civil-military relations contributed to inadequacies in strategic assessment, especially in preparing for the war’s postconflict phase. Finally, chapter 8 concludes the analysis, first with a summary of the book’s empirical findings, and second with a discussion of some of its key implications.

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File created: 3/6/2008

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