Security Studies Program Seminar

The Civil-Military Politics of Strategic Assessment

Risa Brooks
Northwestern University

April 5, 2006

By way of introduction, this talk represents part of a larger project on civil-military relations and their effects on strategic assessment.

Why weren't more resources and focus devoted to post-conflict planning in Iraq? The conventional answers to this question, expressed in the media and elsewhere, are that Secretary Rumsfeld's personality and the Bush Administration's tunnel vision prevented a more robust post-conflict plan from forming. However, I argue that these answers are insufficient in explaining this puzzle. The Department of Defense had all of the necessary experience to create successful postwar plans in the case of Iraq. But organizational pathologies prevented these plans from being formed.

My general theory is based on the premise that civil-military relations affect the process through which leaders engage in strategic assessment. Civil military relations vary along two dimensions: 1) the balance of power between political and military leaders and 2) the intensity of preference divergence over strategic and corporate issues between those leaders. Strategic assessment—which I define as the collection of processes by which leaders share and analyze information and make strategic decisions—varies with the quality of information sharing, strategic coordination, military structural competence, and the authorization process.

One central hypothesis of the study is that political dominance and high preference divergence generate flawed strategic assessment. These values produce weakness in strategic coordination in that the oversight mechanisms used by political leaders truncate conversation and debate about strategic assessment. Furthermore, powerful political leaders elevate like-minded individuals and marginalize dissenters.

How does this hypothesis map against the case of civil-military relations in the US prior to the Iraq war? I argue that the US case matches the hypothesis on both variables. The political leadership dominated military leadership, despite an increasingly politically-aware military, and high preference divergence obtained, particularly in disputes over “transformation” between Rumsfeld and the uniformed services. Rumsfeld viewed the services as overly resistant to change.

So what were the effects of this state of affairs on strategic assessment? The process did have two important strengths: First, a clear authorization process was maintained throughout, and second, information sharing remained relatively unobstructed. However, strategic assessment prior to the Iraq war suffered from precisely the weaknesses my theory predicts. First, the political leadership marginalized dissenters, restricting dialogue to a small circle, and especially General Franks. The Joint Chiefs of Staff were marginalized, and officers responded to this pressure from Rumsfeld by engaging in self-censorship. And second, Rumsfeld appointed like-minded officials to key positions. He also insisted on personally interviewing candidates for promotion to the three- and four-star levels.

These weaknesses in the strategic assessment process generated three related consequences for the process for planning of the Iraq war. First, a full range of opinion on post-war conditions in Iraq was not represented in the consultative process. This helped sustain prevailing assumptions about the postwar environment that suggested a large-scale breakdown in order would not be a major factor. Second, by truncating dialogue with those within the military who were concerned about the postwar environment, Rumsfeld missed an opportunity to influence those within the military who were not, including Tommy Franks. Third, in the absence of constructive dialogue, Rumsfeld used Iraq as a proving ground (a “laboratory”) for transformation.

These dynamics in turn had two more concrete implications for the United States' war plans. First, there was general underinvestment in planning for post-war reconstruction and no plans for contingencies associated with a widespread security breakdown were developed. Second, dialogue concerning the number of troops needed for all four phases of the campaign was limited. Debate between Secretary Rumsfeld and General Franks focused on the major combat operations phase of the campaign, while the most public manifestation of the failure to consider the troop issue in the postwar phase was General Shinseki's Congressional testimony.

The real-world consequences of this poor planning effort were demonstrated in the military's failure to secure the environment in the post-combat transition, resulting in a vacuum of public order. This failure sent poor signals about the effectiveness of the military to Iraqi civilians and would-be insurgents. Also, poor planning resulted in the failure to head off the insurgency from the start, in that there was a lack of intelligence and available forces to follow up on what intelligence existed.

So how do the existing explanations for these failures compare to the record? The explanation that blames Rumsfeld's personality is not fully satisfying. He is viewed as being universally abrasive, yet he specifically left the Joint Chiefs of Staff out of the planning process and marginalized dissenters, which is not the same as saying that he merely exerted strong civilian control. An explanation that accuses the Bush Administration of having tunnel vision about these issues is partly correct in the sense that this administration is not particularly receptive to external advice. However, analyzing Secretary Rumsfeld's actions and the incentives inherent in U.S. civil-military relations is critical to explaining this problem.

The Iraq case has significant implications in addressing the question of when civil-military relations are healthy. Huntington argues that civil-military relations are healthy when there is a significant division of labor in policy decisions about the use of force versus military planning. Cohen suggests conversely that active civilian intervention in military policy and wartime activity is critical. I argue that neither model would have helped postwar planning. Had the military been left alone, there is little evidence that Franks would have encouraged better postwar planning. Nor did Rumsfeld's efforts to assert civilian control produce sound policy. Instead, the quality of debate between civilian and military leaders is the best measure of the health of civil-military relations. A lack of civil-military engagement is a danger sign for strategic failure.

Rapporteur: Adam K. Brody

back to Wednesday Seminar Series, Spring 2006