Decision making in the Bush White House.

Author:Pfiffner, James P.
Position:The Contemporary Presidency - George W. Bush

The process of moving paper in and out of the Oval Office, who gets involved in the meetings, who does the president listen to, who gets a chance to talk to him before he makes a decision, is absolutely critical. It has to be managed in such a way that it has integrity.

--Dick Cheney

The staffing system on Presidential decisions must have integrity, and be known to have integrity. When the President is making a decision, either be sure he has the recommendations of the appropriate people, or conversely, that he knows he does not have their views and is willing to accept the disadvantages that will inevitably result.

--Donald Rumsfeld

A president must give people access. If everybody had the same opinion and the same prejudices and the same belief structure ... I would not get the best advice. So I need people walking in here and saying, "You're not looking so good."

--George W. Bush

Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld came to the foregoing conclusions after their experience as President Gerald Ford's chiefs of staff Rumsfeld first and, after he was appointed secretary of defense, Cheney as his successor in the White House. President George W. Bush himself articulated the reasoning behind their observations, yet he allowed some of his subordinates to circumvent the regular policy-making process. The integrity of the policy process is crucial because a president can easily make a disastrous decision if he or she does not have the full range of informed judgment from the relevant senior people in the administration. The White House Office is so large and complex that a systematic process of policy evaluation is essential. Those who have expertise, authority, or implementation responsibilities must have a way to get their judgments to the president, or the president will act from an incomplete understanding of the implications of the policy decision.

In a conference of former chiefs of staff to several presidents, Cheney pointed out the danger of an "Oh, by the way" decision. That is, there is a danger of the president "making some kind of offhand decision that hadn't been carefully thought about, and then people took it and ran with it. It's what I called an 'Oh, by the way' decision.... That's when you really got into big trouble" (Kernell and Popkin 1986, 19-21). Commenting further on the importance of a systematic and open policy process, Cheney emphasized the centrality of trust:

If you don't trust the process, ... all of a sudden you have people freelancing, trying to get around the decision-making process because they feel the process lacks integrity. So it's very, very important when you set up shop to make certain that you have a guaranteed flow.... that everybody's got their shot at the decision memo. You know if there's going to be a meeting, the right people are going to be in the meeting, that the president has a chance to listen to all of that and then make a decision. (Kumar and Sullivan 2003, 10)

Rumsfeld also articulated the principle that in order to make wise decisions, the president should not be shielded from those who disagree with the current consensus in the White House. "Avoid overly restricting the flow of paper, people, or ideas to the President.... Don't allow people to be cut out of a meeting or an opportunity to communicate because their views may differ from the President's views.... The staff system must have discipline to serve the President well" (Rumsfeld 1989, 37, 39). The problem in the George W. Bush White House was that these rules were ignored at important junctures by each of these two administration officials, especially in the first term. The results were disastrous.

This article will focus on four important policy decisions to illustrate the lack of a regular policy process that characterized many important decisions of the Bush administration's first term: two on detainee policy--the military commissions order of November 13, 2001, and the February 7, 2002, decision to suspend the Geneva Conventions--and two about the war in Iraq--the initial decision to go to war and the decision to disband the Iraqi army in May 2003.

Decision Making in the White House

Both practitioners and scholars begin from the premises that no one individual can hope to understand all of the ramifications of the decisions facing the president and that staff structures and processes are thus necessary to enable the president to make informed decisions. Of course, well-organized advisory systems cannot guarantee good decisions. As President Dwight D. Eisenhower put it, "Organization cannot of course make a successful leader out of a dunce, any more than it should make a decision for its chief. But it is effective in minimizing the chances of failure and in insuring that the right hand does, indeed, know what the left hand is doing" (1965, 630).

One way to ensure that the decisions facing the president have undergone systematic analysis by the experts and professionals in the administration is to prescribe an orderly policy process. One veteran staffer of the National Security Council (NSC) put it this way:

The idea is to have working-level officials from across the government meet to hammer out a policy, then move it up level by level, refining it at each step, until it reaches the national security cabinet known as the Principals Committee. The long road to a principals meeting in the White House Situation Room ensures, to the extent possible, that the government does its due diligence and that the affected agencies buy into the new policy. (Benjamin 2008) (1)

The principles of presidential management, gleaned from the practical experience of White House veterans, have been echoed in the political science literature on presidential decision making. The consensus in the scholarly literature is that presidents will make better decisions if they consider a range of realistic options and alternative policies brought to their attention. This is a primary function of a presidential advisory system and overall White House organization (Walcott and Hult 1995). And the key to eliciting these alternatives from aides is to encourage contrasting perspectives. Presidents need frank advice and unvarnished evaluations. If aides trim their advice to suit the perceived predispositions of their superiors, they will not serve the president well. If presidents discourage dissent, their aides will anticipate their wishes and self-censor conflicting views. This may lead to a narrow focus and the neglect of alternative courses of action.

Meena Bose (1998) compared Eisenhower's more formal advisory system with Kennedy's less formal system and concluded that the Eisenhower approach was superior. In Eisenhower's words,

I know of only one way in which you can be sure you've done your best to make a wise decision. This is to get all of the people who have partial and definable responsibility in this particular field, whatever it may be. Get them with their different viewpoints in front of you, and listen to them debate. (Burke et al. 1989, 54)

Students of presidential decision making have come to similar formulations of the elements of informed decision making in the White House.

Alexander George (1972; 1980) argued that presidents needed to ensure that their advisory systems provide them with a range of alternatives for any important decision and that the best way to assure this was a system of "multiple advocacy." Irving Janis (1982) analyzed the effects of small-group solidarity in situations in which the stakes are high, pressure is great, and secrecy is important. The danger in these instances is that the group will develop the illusion of invulnerability and inherent morality, underestimate the enemy and chances of failure, and fail to reexamine their initial assumptions. Janis used the term "groupthink" to characterize such situations and analyzed cases of presidential decision making to illustrate the syndrome as well as cases when it was avoided. (2)

One way to ensure that the president is exposed to differing perspectives in national security policy is for the president's top aide to adopt an "honest broker" role. This concept implies that in any important decision-making situation, the staffer presents to the president in a neutral way the most important policy alternatives and represents faithfully the views of the advocates of different policy alternatives. The president can thus have confidence that the dice are not loaded in favor of only one or another alternative (or staffer). Playing the role of honest broker does not preclude the staffer from giving his or her best advice to the president, but it ensures that this judgment will not unfairly subvert the judgments of other staffers. Roger Porter described this approach as "a managed process relying on an honest broker to insure that interested parties are represented and that the debate is structured and balanced" (1980, 16). The honest broker role with respect to the assistant to the president for national security affairs has been analyzed by Burke (2005a, 2005b, forthcoming), Daalder and Destler (2009), Destler (1972, 1981), and Mulcahy and Crabb (1991), among others.

A central theme throughout the decision-making literature is that the president needs flank advice about alternatives and that an effective airing of that advice can come only if the president is exposed to contrasting perspectives. In the George W. Bush administration, however, national security advice to the president was dominated by Vice President Cheney, and he was effectively able to manage the policy process to ensure that his preferences prevailed. (3) In making many important decisions, the administration lacked an orderly policy-making process and the benefit of an honest broker. In Bush's case, such a process would have helped because, in Scott McClellan's words, "He is not one to delve deeply into all the possible policy options ... before making a choice. Rather, he...

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