Military Strategy Magazine  /  Volume 7, Issue 1  /  

Assimilation of Military Strategy in a Highly Politicized Environment: A Model

Assimilation of Military Strategy in a Highly Politicized Environment: A Model Assimilation of Military Strategy in a Highly Politicized Environment: A Model
By Christopher Lange - United States Air Force, Public Domain,
To cite this article: Shabtai, Shay, “Assimilation of Military Strategy in a Highly Politicized Environment: A Model,” Military Strategy Magazine, Volume 7, Issue 1, spring 2020, pages 36-41.


Top military strategists operate today in a highly politicized decision-making environment. The latest book by Peter Bergen, named ‘Trump and his Generals – The cost of chaos’, is proclaimed to deal with “what happened when the unstoppable force of President Trump met the immovable object of America’s national security establishment”[i]. According to several reports, top Israeli security officials opposed prime minister’s Netanyahu intentions to strike in Gaza a few days before the September 2019 elections, and some of them suspected he operated out of political motivation[ii]. According to a 2018 survey[iii], “nearly 70 percent of Americans agreed to some extent that the country should defer to the military on whether to use force (strategy)”, but the motives may be different: “Trump supporters may favor deference to the military because they are supremely loyal to this president…Trump opponents may favor deference to the military because they distrust this president’s judgment”. Strategic assessments become tools of the political debate, and sometimes categorized as ‘facts’ or ‘fake facts’ according to one’s beliefs.

This phenomenon of military strategy being carried out in a highly toxic political environment is not new, and this article does not comparatively examine current decision-making processes to previous ones. But it seems that high ranking military strategists have to flex their cognitive muscles to the limit to manage their business in the stormy waters of this period. This article will try to define a model for their conduct.

The theory

Eliot Cohen declares that “[t]he issue of civil-military relations is one of the oldest subjects of political science.”[iv]

Cohen’s analysis starts with Carl Von Clausewitz, who stated, that “war is not merely an act of policy, but a true political instrument… The political object is the goal, war is the means of reaching it, and means can never be considered in isolation from their purpose”[v]. “Strategy is the use of the engagement for the [political – S.S] purpose of the war”. Therefore, the duties of the military strategist are to “define an aim for the entire operational side of the war that will be in accordance with its purpose… the series of actions intended to achieve it… must go on the campaign himself… allowing the general plan to be adjusted… in short, must maintain control throughout”.[vi]

This concept designated ‘the normative theory’ by Cohen, emphasizes the separation between the political debate on defining the war’s objectives and the strategic debate on achieving them in a synchronized operation consisting of tactical engagements. More than a century and two world wars later, Samuel Huntington reinforced this concept in his book, The Soldier and the State, when he stated that “A strong, integrated, highly professional officer corps… immune to politics and respected for its military character, would be a steadying balance wheel in the conduct of policy”, and therefore “serve with silence and courage in the military way.”[vii]

In War and Politics, based on the analysis of USA’s complex experience in Vietnam – among other examples, Bernard Brodie too concluded that the military should focus on military strategy, but from a different perspective. He quoted President Eisenhower, who experienced the challenge from both sides: “if we can make sure that all of our officers are growing up to understand the problem of the citizen and the citizen leaders as well as his tactics and strategy in the purely military field, then I say the generals ought to be, while subordinate to their commander-in-chief [the civilian President], running the war, rather exclusively.”[viii]

Brodie summarizes that it is not possible to provide every General with the political experience gained through eight years of presidency, therefore Generals cannot free themselves from the military perspective of ‘battle’ and ‘victory’, and therefore “…the civil hand must never relax, and it must without one hint of apology hold the control that has always belonged to it by right.”[ix]

The military’s limited understanding of politics and not its military expertise is what requires them to be controlled and monitored by the political echelon.

Edward Luttwak too accepts the separation of the two professions, but from a perspective different from Brodie’s. He determined, that “the derivation of rules of conduct, practical implications, or even a complete scheme of grand strategy, [must be left] to those who have powers of decision in a specific time and place.”[x] In this situation the gap between public servants, who live in the paradoxical world of strategy, and elected officials, who live the linear world of political logic, is widened. “In any case, a conscious understanding of the phenomena of strategy is a great rarity among political leaders, whose talent is precisely to understand and guide public opinion, itself wedded to a commonsense logic that is very different from the paradoxical logic of strategy.”[xi] But it is important to remember that in non-democratic regimes too, “… national interests emerge in a political process …”[xii] In this situation “it is not easy to devise harmonious strategic solutions that are actually superior to mere pragmatic improvisations.” [xiii]

The military strategist’s work is defined by paradoxical logic and is therefore required to work separately from the linear thinking of the political leaders. However, Luttwak’s arguments lead to the understanding that there must be a dialogue between these two logics. Eliot Cohen argues that this was “an unequal dialogue – a dialogue, in that both sides expressed their views bluntly, indeed, sometimes offensively… and unequally, in that the final authority of the civilian leader was unambiguous and unquestioned.”[xiv]

In a special preface to the Hebrew version of Cohen’s book, Shimon Peres argues that, “a political mistake can cause a military defeat, and a military defeat can cause a political failure. Separating the two is in practice impossible. Success is achieved in the un-demarcated area between policy and strategy.”[xv]

However, Cohen understands that “[t]hat give and take exacted a real price, and by and large that price fell on the shoulders of the generals, who found themselves broken down by the strain of managing a war while in turn being managed by a civilian leader who treated military advice as just that – advice.”[xvi]

Giora Iland, formerly Head of the IDF’s Planning Directorate (J5) and later Israel’s National Security Advisor, stated that “the only way to conduct a functional dialogue is a ’round table’ of military officers and statesmen, discussing any political and military topic without hierarchy. Every participant in the debate has the right (in fact the obligation) to speak about every topic… The concept that each will focus only on his specialty – politicians on the political facets and generals on military operations is completely wrong… However, the final decision is hierarchical… it is solely in the hands of the political leadership.”[xvii]

So, the top military strategist must participate in an open and sometimes heated dialogue with the political level, express his understandings based on his military professionalism and paradoxical strategic thinking, and than plan the military strategy and execute it to achieve the political goals put down by the decision makers. In reality, the manifestation of such behavior is very complex.

A model

Figure 1

In order to improve the debate on this complex behaviour, this article suggests a behavioural model for use by the military leadership. This is a qualitative model based on the personal situational assessment of the military strategist while debating with the political leadership. It assumes that there is a normal distribution between the political success and the political influences on the decision-making process. In other words, that to a certain point strategic performance improves the more there is a correlation between it and the political objectives – as per Clausewitz. However, beyond that point, the expansion and domination of a high level of politicization harms the planning and performance of strategy, reducing the actual achievements. An extreme historical example is Hitler’s political domination of German strategy during the Second World War, which lead, some claim, to the failed battle of Stalingrad, and later to Germany’s complete defeat.

The model assumes three levels of strategic performance to be assessed by the strategist:

  1. Low Strategic Expectancy: A strategy the implementation of which harms or at best does not aid the achievement of national goals.
  2. Good Strategic Expectancy: A strategy the implementation of which aids the achievement of national goals but not optimally or at costs higher than necessary.
  3. High Strategic Expectancy: A strategy the implementation of which aids the achievement of national goals optimally while taking into account the totality of constraints and a well-attuned management of the actions vis-à-vis developments.

The model assumes four levels of political influence on policy that the military strategist can identify:

  1. Mild Influence: The political decision-makers are generally indifferent to the issue and the strategy undertaken, tending to regard its influence on their policy as not significantly towards their policies and political standing.
  2. Building Influence: The political decision-makers identify external and internal political opportunities or risks resulting from the strategic actions vis-à-vis the issue, and therefore deepen their involvement to influence relevant military decisions.
  3. Expanding Influence: The political decision-makers see the issue as central to their ideological and political worldview and therefore as a major test to their political actions and status. Therefore, they increase their intervention in military decisions in ways that over-shadow and sometimes harm military considerations.
  4. Taking Over: The political decision-makers identify a major political threat to them from the developing situation, and therefore enforce their positions on the military leadership without regard to strategic concepts and consequences.

After the military leaders have defined their understanding of the current strategic relevance and also the depth of the political influence, they can decide on the manner they wish to conduct the debate with the political leadership. The military leader has a choice of five possible modes of behaviour towards the political leadership:

  1. Initiating Mode: The military leader understands that the current strategy has a Low Expectancy, and that the political leadership is not sufficiently involved in the political aspects (Mild Influence). In this situation he can initiate a debate aimed at improving the strategic conduct.
  2. Discussing Mode: In cases the military leader identifies that the political leadership is interested in Building Influence, the focus and priorities of the political and military leaderships will strengthen the strategic expectancy in this issue.
  3. Coordinating Mode: In this mode the debate between the political and the military leaderships enables developing a strategy of high expectancy. The deep coordination between the two groups leads to a maximization of the external and internal political value and the military strategy relevant to that issue.
  4. Bargaining Mode: When the military leadership identifies that external and internal political considerations are reducing the expectancy of a particular strategy and therefore harming the optimal exploitation of the military tool-box and its modes of operation, the military leadership (assuming it is committed to professional principles) will conduct a deep and tough debate with the political leadership, that, in some cases, may overflow into the public media.
  5. Withdrawing Mode: When external and internal political considerations are reducing the probability of enacting a particular strategy, the military leader will be forced to withdraw from active debate with the political decision-makers, focusing on the tactical aspects of the military operation or perhaps even resign from his post.

A highly politicized environment can be managed in the Coordinating Mode, but it is definitely the main driving force for choosing the Bargaining and Withdrawing Modes.


In this last part, a few test cases of military strategists’ conduct in a highly politicized environment will be examined according to the model.

Israel withdrawal from Lebanon (2000): Prime Minister Ehud Barak’s determination to fulfil one of his major election promises to withdraw the IDF forces from southern Lebanon conflicted with the professional estimate of the military leadership, lead by Chief of the General Staff Shaul Mofaz, that such an action would harm Israel’s strategic situation – allowing, among other threats, Hezbollah to operate within Israel proper. The withdrawal was finally conducted, while taking military risks, after certain modifications in the political aspects of the plan reduced some of the risks. In this event the military leadership estimated that the political leadership was in Expanding Influence Mode, and that there was a Good Strategic Expectancy and therefore responded by applying the Bargaining Mode.[xviii]

The Surge of American Forces in Iraq (2007): At the beginning of 2007 President Bush declared a new policy in the campaign to stabilize Iraq, based on a strategy of reinforcing American forces there and implementing an updated counter-insurgency doctrine. The new approach was developed by a combination of elements in the National Security Council, elements outside the military organization and a group of mid-level officers (‘The Colonels’). To actualise the new concept Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld and commanders of American forces in Iraq were replaced. In a meeting with the Joint Chiefs of Staff on 13th December 2006 it was made clear to the participants that for President Bush success in Iraq was a critical political necessity both externally and an internally, and that he was therefore Taking Over the strategic decision-making. Therefore, though there was a general belief that the new strategy had a Low Expectancy for success, they decided to respond in Withdrawing Mode and began to implement it. [xix]

Destroying Syria’s Nuclear Reactor (2007): The debates on destroying the reactor developed into a sharp dispute between Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, who pushed to strike the reactor immediately, and Defense Minister Ehud Barak, who supported a delay. sources describing the issue ascribe the differences of opinion to differences of internal political agendas of the two. In a consultation on the day of the strike, 5th September 2007, the IDF Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi and Mossad Chief Meir Dagan, supported the action, thus enabling the Prime Minister to finally decide in favour of the strike. It seems that the connection between the military leadership’s assessment that this strategy had a High Expectancy within an Expanding Influence situation in the mind of Prime Minister, and therefore they acted in the Coordinating Mode.[xx]

Ending Operation ‘Cast Lead’ (2010): The IDF’s operation in Gaza began on 27th December 2008. After an aerial operation followed by a ground operation in northern Gaza, the decision-makers deliberated whether to expand the ground operation to southern Gaza. This action would have led to cutting Gaza off from Egypt and surrounding the Hamas regime. Prime Minister Olmert, nearing the end of his term in office, was in favour of this action, whereas Defense Minister Barak and Foreign Minister Tzippi Livni were against it. The military leadership was also divided between the Chief of Staff Ashkenazi who supported ceasing operations and the Chief of the Israel Security Agency and the commander of the IDF’s Southern Command, who supported expanding the operation. Ashkenazi realized that this was a sensitive issue, because of the internal political and personal relationships, in which the politicians were in Taking Over Mode, and the expectancy of the military’s strategic input being low and chose Withdrawing Mode to leave the decision fully in the hands of the politicians.[xxi]

Halting Israel’s Preparations to Attack in Iran (2010): According to a number of sources, in the second half of 2010, Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak both supported a strategy of destroying Iranian nuclear facilities, whereas most of the Israeli government ministers who made up the ‘Government Security Cabinet’ were against this operation. The military leadership too, specifically IDF Chief of Staff Ashkenazi, Mossad Chief Dagan and Israel Security Agency Chief Yuval Diskin, were against this action for strategic reasons. At the end of a September meeting, following a debate which included the 8-minister core of the Security Cabinet and the military leaders, the Prime Minister, Defense Minister and military leaders were left alone in the room. The Prime Minister and Defense Minister ordered the military leaders to order the forces relevant to the operation to prepare to launch. Mossad Chief Dagan answered assertively that since the Security Cabinet had not authorized this, then the order was illegal. In a situation in which at least part of the political leadership was involved in Expanding Influence and creating a Good Strategic Expectancy, the military leadership chose to respond in Bargaining Mode, arguing that only if the two senior politicians convinced the other cabinet members to join the authorization to act in a debate in which the military’s reservation were expressed, would the order to attack carry legal weight and be carried-out.[xxii]

Trump’s Decision to Withdraw from Syria (2018): Trump pronounced a decision to implement his election campaign promise to withdraw all American troops from Syria back to the USA. Secretary of Defense James Mattis responded by resigning. His resignation letter stated the following reasons: “we cannot protect our interests… without maintaining strong alliances and showing respect to those allies… We must do everything possible to advance an international order that is most conducive to our security… and we are strengthened in this effort by the solidarity of our alliances… Because you have the right to have a Secretary of Defense whose views are better aligned with yours… I believe it is right for me to step down”[xxiii]. Secretary Mattis identified what he perceived as a political Take Over by the president, so that maintaining the current strategy he supported to have a Low Expectancy, and therefore chose a Withdrawing Mode and resigned.


In a highly politicized environment, the military strategist encounters a growing challenge to debate alternative strategies with the political leadership. The model presented in this article enables identifying the character of the challenge and the relevant mode of response for the military leader. The model requires further development, to validate its assumptions, and especially the normal distribution between the quality of the military’s strategy and the depth of political involvement; elaboration of the different possible actions in the different modes of operation (for example: resignation, tactical focus or halting of strategic dialogue in the Withdrawing mode); and the analysis of more historical case-studies and simulations of possible future situations. However, it is already a base for improving thinking over the relationship between the political leadership and the military leadership.


[i] Introduction to Peter Bergen, Trump and His Generals: The Cost of Chaos, Penguin Press: United States, 2019, in
[ii] Chaim Levinson and Amos Harel, "Israel Election 2019: Israel Was Preparing to Delay Election Due to Possible Gaza War", Haaretz, September 17th 2019
[iii] Ronald R. Krebs, Robert Ralston and Aaron Rapport, 'Americans’ Blind Faith in the Military Is Dangerous', Foreign Policy, December 3rd 2018,
[iv] The writer wants to thank Professor Ron Krebs for his insights presented in the seminar of department of political studies in Bar Ilan University on December 17th 2019.
[v] Eliot Cohen, Supreme Command, Anchor Books, 2003, pg 241.
[vi] Clausewitz, C. von, On War, Howard, M. & Paret, P, (ed. and trans.), Everyman's library, 1993, pg 99.
[vii] I Clausewitz, C. von, On War, pg 207.
[viii] Samuel Huntington, The Soldier and the State, Cambridge Massachusetts: Harvard University Press,1957, pp.463 - 466.
[ix] Bernard Brodie, War & Politics, Macmillan Publishing Co, 1973, pp 493 – 494.
[x] Bernard Brodie, War & Politics, pg 496.
[xi] Edward Luttwak, Strategy: The Logic of War and Peace (Revised and Enlarged Edition), Belknap Press, 2001, pg 258.
[xii] Edward Luttwak, Strategy: The Logic of War and Peace (Revised and Enlarged Edition), Belknap Press, 2001, pg 50.
[xiii] Edward Luttwak, Strategy: The Logic of War and Peace (Revised and Enlarged Edition), Belknap Press, 2001, pg 211.
[xiv] Edward Luttwak, Strategy: The Logic of War and Peace (Revised and Enlarged Edition), Belknap Press, 2001, pg 260.
[xv] Eliot Cohen, Supreme Command, pg 209
[xvi] Eliot Cohen, Supreme Command [Special Preface to the Hebrew Version], Matar Publisher and Ministry of Defence Publisher, 2003, pg 12.
[xvii] Eliot Cohen, Supreme Command, Anchor Books, 2003, pg 209
[xviii] Giora Iland, Can’t Sleep at Night [Hebrew], Miskal Publishers, 2018, pg 294.
[xix] Amos Gilboa, 'Morning Twilight': The True Story of the IDF Withdrawal from Lebanon, May 2000 [Hebrew], The Intelligence Heritage & Commemoration Center, 2015.
[xx] See for example: Thomas E. Ricks, The Gamble: General Petraeus and the American Military Adventure in Iraq, New York: Penguin, 2009; Bob Woodward, The War Within: a Secret White House History 2006 – 2008, New York: Simon & Schuster, 2008.
[xxi] Ehud Olmert, In First Person [Hebrew], Miskal Publishers, 2018, pp 226 – 228.
[xxii] Ehud Olmert, In First Person [Hebrew], pp 766 – 774; Ben Caspit, Evader – Ehud Barak, the True Story [Hebrew], Kinneret Zmora-Bitan, Dvir Publishers, 2013, pp 46 – 56.
[xxiii] Ben Caspit, Evader – Ehud Barak, the True Story [Hebrew], pp 376 – 382; Ilan Kfir, 'Storm' Enroute to Iran – How the Attempts to Strike Iran's Nuclear Facilities Were Torpedoed [Hebrew], Yediot Akhronot – Hemed Publishers, 2019, pp 108 – 111.