The Duck of Minerva

The Duck Quacks at Twilight

Obama’s Decisionmaking Style

October 16, 2009

There has been a lot of criticism of President Obama’s decision making style in the last couple of weeks. Last week, Dan Balz had this description:

The president, according to one official, came to last week’s meeting with his top advisers armed with a list of questions, carefully written down in his precise handwriting, that were designed to generate a thorough airing of the choices available and the underlying analysis behind them.

So far so good by my reading…. But, apparently this approach is problematic and Balz jumps to this conclusion:

…The longer Obama waits to make this decision, the more he will be subjected to questions about whether he is tough enough and resolute enough to be commander in chief. This was the very question that dogged him throughout his campaign for president. Did this relatively young and even more inexperienced politician have the skills needed to lead the country in a time of war and terrorist threats?

…These are important differences worth debate and analysis by the experts. But for Obama, the risk is that this decision will be framed simply as a question of his fortitude — his willingness to make a tough decision (as he seemingly did last spring in announcing an initial troop increase) and then stick to it. Not just his political opponents at home but leaders around the world will make potentially lasting judgments about the president’s strength based on what happens over the next weeks or months as he weighs his options.

Now we have Thomas Ricks with this gem:

No matter what you think President Obama should decide on Afghanistan, what do you think of his decision-making process? He appeared to make a decision in March, and then indicated five months later that he hadn’t, and then engaged in a very public discussion that appears to pit the White House against U.S. generals. I don’t know anyone who is comfortable with how he has handled this. Do you?

Let me take a stab at this. I’ve spent quite a bit of time over the past fifteen years studying presidential decision making and the use of force and this is one of the best processes I’ve seen. A couple of points: First, in the post-World War II period most presidential decisions on the use of force have been relatively rapid decisions in response to particular crises or triggering events. Circumstances often dictated the necessity of quick decisions, e.g., Truman on Korea in June, 1950; Eisenhower on Lebanon; Reagan on Grenada; Bush 41 on Kuwait, Clinton on Kosovo. The situation in Afghanistan is an entirely different type of case. The situation is deteriorating, but there is no immediate time pressure.

Second, as a result, we should be comparing apples to apples and we have had a number of cases in which presidents have had some luxury of having time to weigh a change in strategy or resources. What is interesting about many of these cases is how quickly and casually various presidents have made decisions on troop escalation or changes in strategic objectives without thorough analysis or consideration of various counterfactuals. Truman, for example, was seduced by MacArthur’s early successes and MacArthur’s promises/wishful thinking that he gave the go-ahead to cross the 38th parallel without a full analysis of likely Chinese responses. Johnson’s decision making processes were faulty on so many grounds.

George H.W. Bush’s decision to shift from Operation Desert Shield to Operation Desert Storm was based largely on a series of individual conversations and small-group briefings with advisers than with a full-scale deliberative process. While the outcome of the Persian Gulf war may seem to be a validation of this approach, it nonetheless generated significant anxiety at the time within the administration and the military about timing of the war, resources, military planning and logistics, etc…

The bottom line is that there is no set of exigent circumstances dictating a decision today or tomorrow in Afghanistan. Obama has tasked his advisers and their staffs to do a thorough review of the strategic objectives and then a review of the various approaches to meet those objectives. The White House also has been clear that this will not be an open ended process and that Obama will make a decision by the end of this month. Ultimately history will judge Obama more on the outcome of his policy decision than the process, but for those of us who study decision making processes, this is about as sound as it gets.

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Jon Western has spent the last fifteen years teaching IR in liberal arts colleges at Mount Holyoke College and the Five Colleges in western Massachusetts. He has an eclectic range of intellectual interests but often writes on international security, U.S. foreign policy, military intervention, and human rights. He occasionally shares his thoughts about professional life in liberal arts colleges. In his spare time he coaches middle school soccer, mentors the local high school robotics team, skis, and sails.