Thursday, September 11, 2008

From 9/11 To The Invasion of Iraq: Analysis of Bush Administration Decision Making

How did the United States go from the terror of 9/11 to invading Iraq? Michael Mazarr, a national security professor at the U.S. Naval War College in Washington D.C. wrote a piece about just that in a January 2007 piece for the journal Foreign Policy Analysis. He used decision-making theory to analyze why the Bush administration chose to invade Iraq. His major findings were the following:

1) Neoconservatives had been advocating for the overthrow of Saddam and a more forceful American foreign policy to maintain America’s position in the world since the 1990s. Many of these advocates were given employment in the Bush administration. President George Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney shared many of the same opinions before they got elected.

2) Before 9/11 there was discussion about getting tougher with Iraq within the Bush White House, but because of differences between the State and Defense Departments, little was done because of bureaucratic deadlock.

3) When 9/11 happened the policy makers and President Bush relied on their preconceived priority, getting rid of Saddam, rather than dealing with the immediate issue, terrorism. They fell back on what they knew, Iraq, rather than what they didn’t, Al Qaeda.

4) Relying on preconceived ideas was due to the White House suffering from group think. Group think is when decision makers are all of like mind, removed from others, rely on informal decision making rather than the existing channels, and believe that maintaining their group is of utmost importance. This leads to the shutting out of criticism, self-reinforcement, and belief in the superiority of the group’s ideas over all others. The group therefore, becomes the most important thing to decision makers.

5) Group think led President Bush to never ask any of his advisors whether invading Iraq was right or not, to ignore the fact that Iraq was not connected to 9/11, and to the administration not properly preparing for the aftermath of the war because they relied on a best case scenario where all the U.S. had to do was use military force and then everything else would take care of itself.

These are important points because group think didn’t suddenly end after the U.S. invasion in 2003, but rather persisted up until 2006 when Rumsfeld was fired. Until then the President and his advisors maintained a linear vision of the war that saw the U.S. as winning, and Iraq as always improving, that was impervious to any contradictory facts. It wasn’t until Bush’s advisors got shuffled that the group think was broken by people that had a different vision of Iraq such as Defense Secretary Robert Gates. In fact, Bush and Cheney might still be suffering from group think to this day.

Here are some abstracts from Mazarr’s article.

“The groupthink model examines cases when a deep and thorough process of rational decision- making gives way to distorted decisions because of the group processes involved (see Janis 1982). Decision-makers in a group setting that is highly cohesive, insulated, and informal in its decision procedures can come to value the group itself more than the quality of its analysis. When this happens, they will crave belongingness over all else and engage in furious concurrence-seeking. The result will be a tendency for quick and ill-considered agreement, a refusal to voice personal doubts, a quashing of independent opinion, an emerging sense of the moral and intellectual superiority of the group leading to a sense of invulnerability, and the demonization of anyone who criticizes the group’s favored analysis or policies.

All of these ills flow from the same source - the desire for concurrence. Members need the group, and to preserve it they defend the purity and single-mindedness of its deliberations. Groupthink does not refer to a situation in which people simply agree with one another; for groupthink to be in evidence, a need for cohesion must hang over the proceedings as the primary motivation for concurrence. Seen as members of policy or epistemic communities, however, these experts’ views emerge as the product of a combination of shared beliefs and more subtle conformity pressures, rather than a desperate drive for concurrence. The motive force is not membership, but long-incubated similarities in beliefs and worldviews produced by the interactions, research, debate, and mutual conformity pressures of a policy community.”
“The group of anti-Saddam activists who urged stronger measures against Iraq constituted a form of policy community that matches closely the basic idea put forward in the agenda-setting literature. The policy community on this issue was smaller, less technically expert, and more ideologically self-defined than the broader concept at work in the agenda-setting framework. Nonetheless, the essential role of the community in this policy process mirrors that laid out in the agenda-setting literature: the anti-Saddam activists discussed issues, generated and circulated knowledge, and established themselves- at least within the newly elected Bush administration - as the source of competence on a key policy decision. In Kingdon’s terms, this certainly counts as a tightly knit community, one that nurtured common views - especially causal stories about the source of instability and risk in the Middle East.

These particular individuals ended up in key positions of power, it seems, by a combination of intent and happenstance.”
“This policy community then lurked beside the stream of events with ready-made options, waiting for an appropriate problem or issue or crisis to come along to which they could attach their pet project. Such a perspective helps to explain the seemingly odd connection: why, as Iraq plainly had little or nothing to do with 9-11 (and when U.S. officials were told as much, in very unambiguous terms, immediately after the terrorist attacks), did advocates of action persist in making the connection? Some have raised dark conspiracy theories, but the agenda-setting framework offers a somewhat more pedestrian explanation: the anti-Saddam activists adopted this approach because that is what policy communities do. It fits a natural and well-established pattern of policy advocates who are, as Kingdon explains, less interested in solving specific problems than they are in attaching their long-incubated and deeply felt pet project to problems as they arise (Kingdon 1984:129). Some former senior officials confirmed this broad view of events after 9-11: Advocates of confronting Iraq were ‘using the 9-11 situation to promote their Iraq preferences,’ said one (Interviewee 3). Immediately after September 11, ‘Paul Wolfowitz was interested’ in going after Iraq, said another; ‘Paul took his shot, because that’s how you do it.’ Wolfowitz’s advocacy ‘wasn’t surprising to me at all. It represented intelligent people of excellent bureaucratic skills using an opportunity to press their agenda.’ (Interviewee 4).”
“Advocates of war with Iraq intentionally used the post-9-11 atmosphere to promote a policy option in which they fervently believed, but even people sympathetic to their goal must recognize the costs of such a procedural approach. Because the upshot was that the United States decided to go to war in a manner that - as the advocates well recognized - would keep their pet proposal immune from the usual public debate and private, governmental analysis, which is, after all, appropriate for such a momentous decision of statecraft. The result was an ill-considered, ill-planned operation.

The Iraq case also reinforces the suggestion of the agenda-setting literature to reframe our concept of groupthink. Anti-Saddam policy communities - think-tank experts, commissions, special lobbying projects - had been honing the notion of removing Saddam Hussein from power for years. In the case of Iraq, these communities played a number of critical roles. By creating self-selecting forums for dialogue and by circulating confirming evidence about Saddam Hussein’s continuing aggressiveness and pursuit of weapons of mass destruction, the communities served to reinforce the view of their participants. A mutual confirmation bias was at work, in which members of these policy communities continually reaffirmed the core tenets of their thinking about Iraq, raising those tenets to the level of accepted faith. In terms of both beliefs and policy options, then, the conservative policy communities on the Iraq issue came to think similarly, reinforce the similarity of their thought, encourage one another in similar views, and suggest implicit social sanctions for those who strayed from the group’s accepted consensus. And indeed, the powerful residual effect of these communities on the beliefs of their members is perhaps the single best explanation for the administration’s approach to intelligence about Iraq. Policy communities (especially tightly bound ones) can thus have the effect of intensifying the cognitive effects already well underway in human decision-making settings - effects such as confirmation bias. The result, in the Iraq case, was a crimped, casual decision process in which vast assumptions were allowed to slide by without notice or debate. When an option is worked out in advance and slipped into policy during a crisis, this case suggests, it will not be subject to sufficiently rigorous debate. Advocates believe they have already thought the problem through.”
“The first part of that script contends that gradually accumulating evidence of a problem will not in itself cause a major policy change without some form of a more pointed focusing event. This was the story of the Iraq issue before 9-11: the same evidence about weapons of mass destruction and terrorist ties existed on 9-10 as on 9-13, but no one in the U.S. government was talking about invasion. As we saw, the policy entrepreneurs who would later attach their project to the fallout from 9-11 had been making a more limited argument for stronger U.S. support of opposition groups; but this was going nowhere in the interagency process, and there is little reason to believe that the Bush administration would have adopted radically tougher policies toward Saddam Hussein’s Iraq without a focusing event to latch onto. But of course 9-11 did occur, and it then became the focusing event onto which the anti-Saddam activists attached their projects.

This mechanism - of pre-existing policy ideas latching onto focusing events, even if the match between them is unclear - helps to explain another element of bad assumptions and poor planning that took place in Operation Iraqi Freedom, the refusal to engage in more detailed long-range planning for post-war contingencies. The model that the anti- Saddam activists had been developing for years was not one of a U.S. invasion - it was based on rebel groups in Iraq, built around Kurds and Shi’ites toppling Saddam with some U.S. help, and then governing the country. How that governance would take place no one really defined, but then the stakes for U.S. planners were smaller when Iraqis would be the ones doing it. While the failure to plan more rigorously once the option shifted to a U.S. invasion seems senseless in retrospect, when seen through an agenda-setting lens, such thinking makes perfect sense: U.S. officials were applying a pre-existing policy idea to the opportunity offered by a focusing event - and in that pre-existing idea, in which Iraqis would have run the post-war phase, such assumptions made reasonable sense. The problem was not that U.S. officials were ignorant of post-war complications; the problem was that they had spent years incubating a policy option - Iraqi rebellions against Saddam supported, but not led or aided on the ground, by the United States - that had embedded a certain way of looking at the post-war phase deep into their thought process. Part of the problem may have been that anti-Saddam activists could not break out of the mental map that told them the post-war phase would take care of itself.

But the Iraq case also signals the dangers of such analytical outcomes, the problems with an opportunistic model of policy formation. As Polsby (1984:169) explains, a crisis can offer an opportunity for those with ready-made solutions to get them enacted, ‘but it cannot make the policy actually work afterward.’ Policy advocates thus ‘have to be reasonably confident of the efficacy of the alternatives they propose - or they may get what they ‘want’ and find it was not worth getting.’’’
“When a focusing event or policy window creates an opportunity to change national behavior, the person or persons who then make this happen are the ‘‘policy entrepreneurs’’- advocates determined, for one reason or another, to fight inertia, the bureaucracy, opposing interests, and anything else in their way to get the idea through the window and into law or policy. Policy entrepreneurs are active all the time, not only when windows of opportunity are open. But they also act as judges of ripeness and work to push the hardest when they perceive such a policy window to be open.”
“Paul Wolfowitz emerges as a key policy entrepreneur. Already pushing, according to many accounts, for strong anti-Saddam policy before 9-11, several sources concur that he began urging President Bush to think about an Iraq–Al-Qaeda connection in the days after September 11. Another strong entrepreneurial figure, according to many reports, appears to have been Vice President Cheney. Below their level, a variety of other officials in the Defense Department, the Vice President’s office, and elsewhere in government endorsed and pushed the recommendation to deal decisively with the problem of Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. Outside government, others, most notably including pundit and Defense Policy Board head Richard Perle and Iraqi exile Ahmad Chalabi, argued for the same course. But it was the role of key government officials - and their ability, in paraphrasing Haas’s conclusion, to ‘institutionalize their influence and insinuate their views into policy’- that was decisive in this case. These policy entrepreneurs had, as suggested in Kingdon’s model, been engaged in a ‘softening up’ process for years, in precisely the ways Kingdon would expect - publishing articles, holding conferences, promoting legislation, lobbying officials, and more. In this case, of course, the role of Vice President Cheney as an entrepreneur has been well discussed as had been the challenge such an energetic vice presidential role poses for an interagency process more commonly built around debates between appointed cabinet officials.

Interestingly, in the Iraq case, the most important policy entrepreneur may well have been the figure that veterans of the U.S. government routinely describe as the ‘only real policy maker in the executive branch’: the president himself. Evidence in the case study strongly suggests that George W. Bush did not have to be hauled into advocacy for Operation Iraqi Freedom; he harbored such inclinations from the beginning, and quickly began sending signals that removing Saddam Hussein from power was a serious option. Because of the way the U.S. executive branch is such a president-centric system, the way that it responds so powerfully and diligently to the slightest policy hints from the president, Bush’s leanings may have exercised a decisive effect.”
“At one point, he [Kingdon] suggests three basic criteria for ideas to survive and prosper in the policy stream: technical feasibility, value acceptability, and anticipation of future constraints (Kingdon 1984:138–146). In the Iraq case, there is little question about the second criterion: invading Iraq supported numerous values important to senior decision-makers, from removing Saddam Hussein from power to demonstrating U.S. military strength and resolve. As for the other two criteria, however, while they were at work in the Iraq decision, they were only considered in ways that have proven to be tragically incomplete. The planning process, for example, examined the technical feasibility of the initial military campaign in great detail, and from that extrapolated to the feasibility of the complete operation, through post-conflict stabilization to occupation and the creation of a new government. The technical feasibility of post-conflict reconstruction was never assessed in any rigorous way at the principals’ level; several interviewees told me that the president’s entire formal briefing time on postwar Iraq amounted to a single, one-hour presentation. Meanwhile, close consideration of possible future constraints was side- tracked by the assumption that the invasion would not produce a long, drawn-out, costly occupation.”
“Actual decisions - national behavior - emerge when a policy window opens long enough to let some of that noise through, and the moment feels to the participants like a sudden coalescing of opinion: people in government ‘speak of a ‘growing realization,’ an ‘increasing feeling’ . . . and ‘coming to a conclusion’ ’ (1984:147). There are no new policy ideas, Kingdon suggests; existing ones merely cluster around policy windows, trying to get through. When a policy window does open, then, the policy it helps usher into being will generally be a recombination of long-proposed ideas rather than something tailored to the situation. This paradigm leads Kingdon to another conclusion: the crucial factor when a policy window opens is not what policy ideas might conceivably meet the needs it creates, but what ‘available alternative’ is lying around, waiting to be applied. Well-developed available alternatives can elbow aside ‘equally worth’’ concepts that do not happen to have ‘a viable, worked-out proposal attached’ (1984:150).”

“Light contends that this policy search will be ‘‘biased’’ in whatever direction the executive branch thinks the president wants to go.”

“All of this mirrors the Iraq case quite closely. After years of broad worry about Saddam Hussein’s Iraq and some planning, never put into action, to support a military coup or exile-based insurrections, 9-11 led to a ‘growing realization’ that Saddam would have to be dealt with. More importantly, dealing decisively with Iraq was one of the few ‘available alternatives’ for responding to a major terrorist attack: there was no global counterterrorism strategy lying on a shelf, waiting to be dusted off. As time has made clear, moreover, fighting terrorism is an enormously complicated, nuanced, self-contradictory task that does not lend itself to simple policy solutions of the sort entrepreneurs can shove through a policy window on short notice. Again, one possible interpretation of Bush’s state of mind after his December 28, 2001 CENTCOM briefing on the war plan, for example, is that it furnished precisely the sort of ‘available alternative’ he was looking for - an available, acceptable option assembled by a general who had just won a surprisingly easy conflict in Afghanistan. The danger, of course, was that such thinking closed out the numerous other factors, from world opinion to nonmilitary aspects of postwar planning, that would play a decisive role in determining the fate of the Iraq mission writ large.”

“It is striking how little outside advice Bush sought, how few tough questions were asked of knowledgeable observers. He admitted to Woodward that he simply never asked Powell whether the Secretary of State thought attacking Iraq was the right thing to do. Rumsfeld himself said, ‘Whether there was ever a formal moment when he asked me, Do I think he should go to war, I can’t recall it’ (Woodward 2004:416). As Richard Clarke has written, ‘I doubt that anyone ever had the chance to make the case to [President Bush] that attacking Iraq would actually make America less secure . . . Certainly he did not hear that from the small circle of advisers who alone are the people whose views he respects and trusts’ (Clarke 2004:244). Again, this behavior makes perfect sense from an agenda-setting perspective: when a policy window opens, available alternatives are not likely to be subjected to laborious rethinking. Entrepreneurs are trying to push them through, and policymakers have too little time to be deliberate.”

“Operation Iraqi Freedom thus occurred in part because a policy window opened, and going after Saddam Hussein was one of the few available alternatives ready for policy entrepreneurs to take up and act upon. Again, though, as I stressed in the section on social construction, it is important to think of these processes as being at work on specific groups, communities, or movements, rather than on all players in the policy world. Invading Iraq seemed an available alternative to the anti-Saddam policy community, which counted among its members many senior officials of the Bush administration as well as supportive members of the broader national security community. It is not likely that it would have seemed so attractive, as a ready-made available alternative, to a Gore administration, or a McCain administration, or even a George H. W. Bush administration.”


Mazarr, Michael, “The Iraq War and Agenda Setting,” Foreign Policy Analysis, January 2007

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