Three Approaches to Presidential Foreign Policy-Making in the Twenty-First Century

The Executive, the Magistrate, and the Maverick

by Luis da Vinha (Author) Anthony Dutton (Author)
Monographs XII, 310 Pages

Table Of Content

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Figure 1 The George W. Bush Foreign Policy Decision-Making Model

Figure 2 The Barack Obama Foreign Policy Decision-Making Model

Figure 3 The Donald Trump Foreign Policy Decision-Making Model

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Table 1 Main Characteristics of the Three Presidential Management Models

Table 2 The George W. Bush National Security Council (2001–2009)

Table 3 The Barack Obama National Security Council (2009–2017)

Table 4 The Donald Trump National Security Council (2017–2021)

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Introduction: From “Fire
and Fury” to Letters of Love

On March 8, 2018, the South Korean national security advisor, Chung Eui-yong, stood on the front lawn of the White House and announced that after briefing President Trump on his recent visit to North Korea, the American president had agreed to meet with North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong Un, in an effort to achieve an agreement on the denuclearization of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. Shortly afterwards, the White House press secretary issued a statement confirming that the president had agreed to a face-to-face meeting with Kim Jong Un “at a place and time to be determined” (Horsely and Hu, 2018). Trump himself followed up with a tweet the next day claiming that great progress was being made and that meeting planning was underway (Idem).

The announcement took the world by storm. Never before had a sitting American president and a North Korean leader held a face-to-face meeting – they had not even shared so much as a phone call (Fifield, Nakamura, and Kim, 2018). The revelation was even more remarkable considering the mounting tension between both countries over the previous two years. In fact, in an interview with CBS during his 2016 presidential campaign, Trump vowed that he “would get China to make that guy [Kim Jong Un] disappear in one form or another very quickly” (cited in Johnson, 2016).1 Upon arriving in the White House, Trump promptly requested that the Pentagon develop plans for a pre-emptive military strike on North Korea (Woodward, 2018).

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Over the same period, the regime in Pyongyang ratcheted up its nuclear program. In early-July 2017, North Korea successfully tested its first intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM), which the regime claimed could strike the continental U.S. (Sang-Hun, 2017). American intelligence agencies also concluded that Kim Jong Un’s regime had been able to miniaturize a warhead that could be mounted on the missiles (Baker and Sang-Hun, 2017). Two months later, North Korea detonated its sixth and most powerful nuclear weapon in an underground test which experts estimated was up to sixteen times more powerful than any of its previous attempts (Sanger and Sang-Hun, 2017).

As North Korea rattled the international community, the U.S. continued planning and preparations for military action. In October 2017, in accordance with the provisions of the U.S. Operations Plan 5015 (OPLAN 5015), the U.S. Air Force carried out a round of military exercises simulating airstrikes on North Korea (Woodward, 2018). However, while pre-emptive precision strikes could force a leadership change in Pyongyang, military planners informed decision-makers in Washington that only a ground invasion would be capable of guaranteeing the destruction of North Korea’s nuclear weapons program. The risks inherent in such an option were so grave that, after being briefed on the assessment of the plans, a bipartisan group of members of Congress stated that such action “could result in hundreds of thousands, or even millions of deaths in just the first few days of fighting” (Pengelly, 2017).

In the meantime, President Trump amplified his warnings to the North Korean regime. In an impromptu statement to reporters on August 8, 2017, the president warned that if North Korea continued to threaten the U.S., they “will be met with fire and fury like the world has never seen” (cited in Baker and Sang-Hun, 2017). Later that week, Trump reiterated his intimidation, tweeting that “Military solutions are now fully in place, locked and loaded, should North Korea act unwisely” (reproduced in BBC News, 2017b). In addressing the United Nations General Assembly in September, Trump again put Pyongyang on notice, calling Kim Jong Un “Rocket Man” and stating that “the United States has great strength and patience, but if it is forced to defend itself or its allies, we will have no choice but to totally destroy North Korea” (cited in Nakamura and Gearan, 2017a). The tit-for-tat of insults and escalatory rhetoric continued throughout the months.

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While many of the president’s supporters hailed his more assertive approach to North Korea, others grew increasingly concerned that the situation might escalate into a military confrontation (Baker, BIB_ch01_0003; Baker and Sang-Hun, 2017). South Korean and Chinese leadership urged both sides to show restraint and find a diplomatic solution to the impasse. U.S. allies such as Germany’s Angela Merkel and Senator John McCain (R-AZ) pressed Trump to roll back the belligerency (Idem). Even within the administration, there were different assessments of the president’s pugnacious rhetoric. For instance, the Assistant to the President for National Security Affairs (APNSA), General H. R. McMaster, encouraged the president’s aggressive approach. In contrast, the Secretary of Defense, General James Mattis, was concerned that such truculent posturing by both sides could potentially spiral out of control and lead to war (Woodward, 2018: 279).

Therefore, when on March 8, the South Korean national security advisor came to the White House to inform the administration about his recent meeting in Pyongyang, no one could imagine the ensuing volte-face. That day, Trump had met with representatives from the video game industry and had announced a round of new tariffs on steel and aluminum imports. The president was not scheduled to meet the South Korean delegation. However, after a brief exchange with McMaster, Trump decided to organize a brief meeting with the delegation in the Oval Office. Eui-yong informed the president, McMaster, Mattis, and the White House Chief of Staff, General John Kelly, about how in his recent meeting with Kim Jong Un the North Korean leader had expressed a “commitment to denuclearization” and extended an invitation to meet with the American president (Fifield, Nakamura, and Kim, 2018). To the surprise of all of those in the room, Trump immediately agreed to meet with Kim Jong Un to discuss an agreement on denuclearization (Cook, Johnson, and Lima, 2018; Liptak, 2018).

After the meeting, administration officials did not provide details on the upcoming talks. Over the next few days, the president’s aides were shy on specifics, but did indicate that Trump would lead the negotiations, expressing confidence in the president’s ability “to make deals” (Fifield, Nakamura, and Kim, 2018). Several commentators attributed the lack of information to the fact that Trump’s impulsive decision confounded his own administration and caught them unprepared (Bennett, 2018; Cha, 2018). As an example, many critics pointed out that the day prior to the announcement, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson had told reporters that the U.S. and North Korea were still far from commencing negotiations (Sonne and Hudson, 2018). Administration officials countered saying that Trump’s decision to accept the invitation to the talks was part of a broader strategy and not an impromptu response (Mann and Lubold, 2018).

Regardless of the motives, Trump’s decision upended decades of U.S. policy (Nakamura, 2020). Since the North Korean nuclear issue made it onto the U.S. security agenda in the 1980s, American presidents had followed a similar policy, disavowing direct negotiations between the two countries’ leaders.

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The Clinton administration was the first to deal with the threat of North Korea’s nuclear program. While military plans were being developed for a preemptive strike on Pyongyang’s nuclear facilities, former President Jimmy Carter informed the White House that he had reached an agreement for negotiations with the regime’s leader Kim Jong Il (Chollet and Goldgeier, 2008). After several months of negotiations, on October 1994, both parties signed the U.S.-North Korean Agreed Framework. Under the accord, the North Korean regime committed to suspend its nuclear program and allow for UN inspections in exchange for two light-water reactor nuclear power plants and the delivery of heavy fuel oil (Chanlett-Avery et al., 2018). While the agreement was met with skepticism by many in Washington, it allowed Clinton to claim that it was “a good deal for the United States” and shift his focus to other policy challenges closer to his heart (Clinton cited in Riding, 1994). Over the next few years, the administration tried to secure an additional agreement which would curtail Pyongyang’s missile program and stop it from selling its missile technology to other countries. Despite a moratorium in 1999 on halting its long-range missile tests, no formal agreement was achieved (Chanlett-Avery et al., 2018).

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Upon arriving at the White House, the Bush administration showed no urgency in negotiating with North Korea. Believing that the previous agreement was flawed, and that time was on America’s side, the administration initiated a policy review in its first months in office (Martin, 2007). The review’s proposals were quickly relegated to a secondary position as the September 11, 2001, attacks refocused U.S. policy. Formal contacts were only re-established between the two countries in late-2002 as the U.S. denounced Pyongyang for breaching the Agreed Framework by maintaining a secret uranium enrichment program. When North Korea responded by abandoning the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), President Bush took a hard line on North Korea until it would agree to complete, verifiable, and irreversible disarmament. The administration sought to isolate Kim Jong Il’s regime by refusing to negotiate directly with Pyongyang and offering no concessions until North Korea complied with its demands (Idem). In the summer of 2003, in an attempt to further pressure the regime, the U.S. pressed forward with the “Six-Party Talks” which, besides North Korea and the U.S., included China, Japan, Russia, and South Korea. After months of negotiations, in September 2005, Pyongyang agreed to abandon its nuclear weapons program in exchange for economic aid, as well as an American guarantee that it would not attack or invade North Korea, and a pledge to begin negotiations over the normalization of relations with the U.S. (Chanlett-Avery et al., 2018). However, North Korea’s missile tests in July 2006 and its nuclear test in October of that same year derailed further progress and led to the unanimous condemnation of the Kim Jong Il regime in the UN Security Council (Martin, 2007).

President Obama also demonstrated restraint in engaging with North Korea.2 Obama asked his advisors if a pre-emptive military strike could eliminate Pyongyang’s nuclear program. After assessing the options, the Pentagon and U.S. intelligence services informed the president that only a ground invasion could guarantee the elimination of all North Korea’s nuclear weapons and missile systems (Woodward, 2018). Wary of risking military confrontation with North Korea, the Obama administration followed a policy of “strategic patience” in which the U.S. “would pursue a comprehensive package deal for North Korea’s complete denuclearization in return for normalization of relations and economic aid, but it will not move first” (Kim, 2016: 33). The administration complemented this approach with additional unilateral sanctions on the North Korean regime and robust military exercises with its regional allies (Chanlett-Avery et al., 2018). Despite the prospect of a breakthrough resulting from the 2012 “Leap Day Agreement,” talks rapidly broke down as North Korea continued to pursue its nuclear testing and negotiations stalled (Idem).

The contrast between previous presidents and Trump in dealing with the North Korean nuclear threat could not be any greater. All of Trump’s predecessors took a cautious approach to negotiations with Pyongyang and sought to achieve concessions before proclaiming success. Clinton, Bush, and Obama rejected any attempt to directly engage with North Korea’s leadership. Rather, negotiations were carried out by diplomats and other officials, usually in the context of multilateral forums. However, confident in his ability to surmount the challenges of diplomacy, after months of insults and threats, Trump agreed to a face-to-face meeting with Kim Jong Un without any preconditions. In their first meeting in Singapore in June 2018, Trump argued that by establishing a personal relationship with his North Korean counterpart, both countries could overcome their differences and reach a definitive agreement (Landler, 2018b). The Singapore Summit ended with a vaguely worded joint statement on the establishment of a new relationship between the two nations and a commitment “to work toward complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula” (The White House, 2018b). Nevertheless, President Trump quickly took to Twitter to extol his achievement, claiming that there was “no longer a Nuclear Threat from North Korea”, adding that “President Obama said that North Korea was our biggest and most dangerous problem. No longer – sleep well tonight!” (reproduced in Landler, 2018b).

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Trump continued to believe that his personal relationship with the North Korean leader would suffice in overcoming the impasse. Over the next few months, the president gloated about their regular correspondence and publicly stated that Kim Jong Un “wrote me beautiful letters, and they’re great letters,” adding that “We fell in love” (Trump cited in Rucker and Dawsey, 2019). Despite the reluctance of many U.S. officials, in March 2019, Trump again met with Kim Jong Un to try to hammer out the details of a more specific agreement. However, the Hanoi Summit revealed the gulf between the two nations in terms of what each was willing to concede. North Korea’s proposal to dismantle its nuclear complex in Yongbyon in exchange for the end of the international sanctions on the regime was rejected by the U.S. As a result, the remaining scheduled events of the summit were cancelled as both sides promised to continue negotiations (Sanger and Wong, 2019). In June, Trump met with Kim Jong Un in North Korea’s Demilitarized Zone and told reporters that they had agreed to designate negotiators and assured the world that “A lot of progress has been made, a lot of friendships have been made, and this has been in particular a great friendship” (cited in Baker and Crowley, 2019).

According to Jung Pak (2020: 96), “Between 2017 and 2019, relations between the United States and North Korea made for great television.” However, little was achieved in terms of substance. While Trump continued to boast about his close personal relationship with Kim, the North Korean regime stepped up its belligerent rhetoric and behavior. For instance, Pyongyang continued to develop its nuclear program. In late 2019, North Korea tested the launching of ballistic missiles from a sea-based platform and announced that it would soon reveal a new strategic weapon (Nakamura, 2020; Pak, 2020). In April 2020, on the eve of South Korea’s parliamentary elections, North Korea fired several short-range missiles toward its neighbor’s eastern coast (Sang-Hun, 2020a). In June 2020, two years after the Singapore Summit, Kim Jong Un’s regime officially acknowledged that the diplomatic overtures with the U.S. had failed, stating that “Even a slim ray of optimism for peace and prosperity on the Korean Peninsula has faded away into a dark nightmare” (Sang-Hun, 2020b). Days later, North Korea blew up its joint liaison office with South Korea in Kaesong, capsizing the hopeful diplomatic breakthrough both countries had achieved two years earlier. Since then, North Korea has claimed that it will make no more concessions, that any future initiatives belong to the U.S., and reports indicate that Pyongyang has continued to process uranium for as many as 15 new nuclear bombs (Noack, 2020; Warrick and Denyer, 2020). As a result, President Trump’s ambitious gambit did not pay off. Despite his criticism of his predecessors, Trump’s unprecedented and unique approach to the North Korea question proved to be ineffective in achieving the goal of convincing Pyongyang to commit to denuclearization.

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The Importance of Presidential Leadership in Foreign Policy-Making

The fact that three presidents, facing similar international challenges, followed distinctly different courses of action highlights the importance of understanding the decision-making processes that helped each individual president choose his administration’s policy. There are numerous factors shaping U.S. foreign policy such as the international context, the domestic political context, and the governing ideology and philosophy. Yet, as David Rothkopf (2005: 15) notes at the top of the list in terms of importance is the “personality and the ʻsociologyʼ of an administration.” In fact, more than in any other democratic system, the American president assumes a central role in leading the nation’s foreign policy (Greenstein, 2009; Kriner, 2009). Many scholars highlight the unique institutional framework established by the Founders which created a system of a separation of powers among the different branches of government. The powers attributed to the president and to Congress relating to foreign affairs have been a topic of intense scrutiny.3 Scholars have traditionally argued that the American Constitution created a system in which the Executive and Legislative branches of government would have to engage with each other to define and implement U.S. foreign policy. However, several recent studies argue that this balance has increasingly come undone, as Congress has willingly relinquished its role in foreign policymaking or become incapable of challenging presidential initiatives (Adler, 2006; Goldgeier and Saunders, 2018; Ornstein and Mann, 2006; Schlesinger Jr., 2004). There is a growing body of evidence that attests that developments in recent decades have strengthened the president’s role in defining U.S. involvement in international affairs, making “the president the chief executive, the chief diplomat, and if necessary, the chief war maker in the conduct of foreign policy” (McCormick, 2012: 268).

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Naturally, over the years, individual differences among presidents have received significant scholarly attention in order to understand how a president’s unique traits contribute to foreign policy. Fred Greenstein (2009) has identified several qualities which differ between presidents and explain the divergence in policies: proficiency as a public communicator, organizational capacity, political skill, vision of public policy, cognitive style, and emotional intelligence. Alexander George (1981: 5) argues that, besides the personality traits of each president, we also need to assess the cognitive beliefs that each individual “has acquired during the course of his education, personal development, and socialization into political affairs.” Thomas Preston (2000) has further included the need to analyze a president’s need for power and policy experience or expertise as essential elements for understanding foreign policy decisions. Moreover, in his seminal work on the American presidency, Richard Neustadt (1990) argued that understanding presidential leadership involves analyzing his capacity to influence others.

However, while acknowledging that the president’s role is paramount, foreign policy decision-making is, ultimately, a collective endeavor (da Vinha, 2017; George, 1981; Hoyt and Garrison, 1997; ’t Hart, Stern and Sundelius, 1997). Since the foundation of the American republic, presidents have sought the counsel of others, namely of cabinet members and other formal and informal advisors. However, over the years, the advisory structures available to the president have grown significantly in size and complexity (Burke, 2009). Not only has the size of the cabinet increased significantly over the decades, but the resources available to the president have also greatly expanded. Beginning with the Reorganization Act of 1939, the Employment Act of 1946, and the National Security Act of 1947, the presidency was transformed into an institution in its own right, with thousands of staffers and aides which led to a greater centralization of the policymaking process within the White House4. Thus, as the presidential scholar John Burke (Burke, 2014: 367) duly explains, “The most obvious management task a president faces is to recognize on first being elected that organizing and staffing the White House are matters of highest priority.”

The president has significant flexibility and discretion in organizing his advisory system. Each president implements an advisory system that he believes best suits his unique requirements and objectives and, thus, reflects his particular leadership style (Hermann and Preston, 1994). More precisely:

Presidents enjoy unusual degrees of freedom in organizing the White House staff (including that of the NSC), in determining the degree and means through which the cabinet and others might be incorporated into their decision making, in establishing whether there will be outside channels of information and advice, in deciding their own settings for making policy choices, and even whether organizational structures and processes have much bearing on their own final decisions. (Burke, 2005: 252)

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There are several different presidential management models that identify different strategies presidents employ to manage the foreign policy decision-making process. The three most cited models applied to U.S. foreign policy are the competitive model, the formalistic model, and the collegial model (George, 1981; Johnson, 1974). In the competitive model, the president consciously encourages competition and conflict among his advisors and heads of cabinet. In this model, communication or collaboration among the advisors is limited as the president occasionally interacts directly with subordinate departmental officials in order to acquire independent advice and information. The formalistic model relies on a hierarchical flow of information and advice to the president from his advisors and cabinet heads. The formalistic model encompasses a division of labor based on the functional expertise of each department or agency. In this case, the president does not circumvent cabinet heads by reaching down to subordinates for advice, but rather keeps to officially ordered channels. Moreover, interaction between advisors is not encouraged, leaving the president to assume the responsibility of synthesizing the specialized information received. Finally, the collegial model has traditionally been represented as a hub-and-spoke model in which the president is at the center of the decision-making process encouraging advisors to interact with him and each other. This model is the closest to group problem solving, for advisors debate amongst each other to arrive at the best possible policy solution. Hence, information is acquired from multiple sources and advisors are encouraged to act as generalists, rather than as departmental specialists or experts. The collegial model envisions more informal procedures than the previous arrangement which allows for the president to sporadically interact with subordinate officials for obtaining more information and advice.

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Our research seeks to build and extend on the previous work on presidential management of foreign policy decision-making. While several studies have broadened the original case studies conducted by Richard Tanner Johnson and by Alexander George by encompassing other presidents, few attempts have been made to identify the advisory systems of the American presidents of the twenty-first century – i.e., George W. Bush, Barack Obama, and Donald Trump. The studies that have been published on these presidents tend to diverge in their assessments and, in many cases, fail to employ a coherent systematic approach that can illustrate more than discrete instances of foreign policy decision-making and, therefore, hinder the development of a more robust profile of each presidents’ management style. As a result, we can find studies characterizing President Bush’s decision-making style as conforming with the formalistic model (Mitchell and Massoud, 2009) and others that reject the analogy (Pfiffner, 2004a). Similarly, different researchers have claimed that President Obama’s style is analogous both to the competitive model (Rudalevige, 2012) and the collegial model (Pfiffner, 2011). Likewise, some scholars portray President Trump’s style as meeting the standards of the competitive model (Lewis, Bernhard and You, 2018), while others counter by claiming that his unconventional style departs significantly from the traditional models of presidential decision-making (da Vinha, 2019a). The purpose of our research is to try to surmount these shortcomings and provide a more comprehensive and systematic assessment of the management of the foreign policy decision-making processes in the Bush, Obama, and Trump administrations and provide a more complete and representative profile of each presidents’ management style.

Comparative Case Studies and Presidential Foreign Policy-Making

This aim of this book is didactic. Both of the authors have dedicated their academic careers to teaching. While each of us maintains an active research agenda, our main focus is on engaging students in the classroom and helping them succeed academically. Between us, we have taught a broad array of courses on American Government, the American Presidency, American Foreign Policy, American History, and International Relations. In these and other courses, we have always emphasized the role of political leaders in defining and shaping policy. True to our grounding in the humanities, we appreciate the differences amongst individuals and how each one brings their own unique personal experience to everything they do. Naturally, in teaching political science courses we discuss with students how each president and their administrations are unique in the way they interpret, define, and implement policy.

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However, finding resources that will allow students to compare and contrast presidential decision-making can be an elusive enterprise. Our predicament is not the lack of bibliographic resources. Quite the contrary. There are numerous excellent monographs on almost each one of the individual cases we analyze in this book, and they are amply referenced throughout. These scholarly texts provide rich and detailed accounts of the main actors, processes, and dynamics underlying some of the most relevant foreign policy decisions in recent American history. However, while rich in detail, most of these books are unsuitable as ancillary texts for undergraduate courses that seek to balance disciplinary breadth with analytical depth. Asking students to read and analyze thousands of pages of bibliographic material to identify and understand the differences in the way presidents make foreign policy is not feasible considering the manner most courses on American government are structured and organized. The discussion of presidential decision-making usually encompasses only a modest portion of a course and, therefore, requires concise and elucidative comparative studies. Accordingly, this book seeks to fill that void and provide students and instructors with an assortment of cases that allow for appraising and comparing the similarities and differences among the twenty-first century American presidents.

In order to assess the management styles of these three presidents, we employ a cross case comparison method. Due to the inherent research question’s explanatory nature – i.e., how did each respective president manage his foreign policy advisory system? – , the use of case studies is the most appropriate approach. According to Yin (1994: 6), questions dealing with why and how “deal with operational links needing to be traced over time, rather than mere frequencies or incidence.” Therefore, comparative case studies allow for a longitudinal analysis of each administration and can reveal any evolution or transformation of a president’s management style over time. This is particularly important since most studies on presidential decision-making tend to focus on discrete policy events or on comparative events in different administrations and, thus, are unable to identify any potential organizational variations over time (Burke, 2009). Moreover, considering the variety of actors involved in the U.S. foreign policy decision-making process, the use of case studies is equally pertinent because, as George and McKeown (1985: 21) argue, “case studies of organizational decision making have long been one of the most important methods by which researchers have investigated organizational behavior and improved their theoretical understanding of that behavior.”

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By employing case studies, we can use a historical analysis of causal assertion. Historical analyses of political phenomena have raised concerns for many political scholars (see Lawson, 2010; Vaughan-Williams, 2005). Political scientists have been particularly critical of the fact that historical case studies “do not lend themselves readily to strict comparison and to orderly cumulation” (George, 2019: 198). However, over the years, historians and political scientists have increasingly used multiple case studies to conduct controlled comparisons (George, 2019; Haney, 2002; Mitchell, 2005b). These cases are constructed and compared using the structured-focus method. As George and Bennet (2005) point out, the method is “structured” because a set of general and standardized questions are used to analyze each individual case and, subsequently, systematically compare the findings of the different cases. The method is “focused” to the extent that it concentrates the analysis only on certain aspects of the cases, namely the interactions and dynamics involved in the decision-making processes.

The questions framing the analyses are:

1) What is the role of the president in the advisory system?

2) What is the role and relationship amongst the advisors in the advisory system?

3) What are the procedures for managing the advisory system?

4) What is the general dynamic of the decision-making process – i.e., what is the overarching pattern of interaction among the decision-makers over time?

These questions provide an opportunity to focus on the central theoretical framework underlying this study and assess the management models employed by each president in formulating his administration’s foreign policy. The first question seeks to assess the style and the level of involvement of each president. In particular, the question seeks to assess if the president centralizes the decision-making process on himself or if he delegates significant functions to his advisors. The question also intends to evaluate if the president encourages any competition or collaboration among his advisors or if he prefers a division-of-labor, leaving the intellectual synthesis of the specialized policy inputs to himself. The second question focuses on the relationship amongst the president’s main foreign policy advisors in an attempt to gauge if they contend for the president’s attention, cooperate in the deliberation process, or if they insulate themselves in terms of the functional expertise of their respective department or agency. The third question analyzes the procedures characterizing the deliberations, namely identifying if main processes involve formal or informal channels of communication and advice. The final question endeavors to identify the overarching pattern of interaction amongst the president, his advisors, and any other individuals or groups providing input for the final decision. In particular, the question provides an opportunity to determine if there were any changes to the president’s decision-making processes over time.

The cases selected for analysis seek to illustrate and explain as best as possible the foreign policy decision-making approaches espoused by each of the three administrations. While pragmatic issues were certainly taken into consideration by the authors, the case selection was driven principally by methodological justifications.5 In other words, the nine cases analyzed herein were selected based on their representativeness of the administrations’ foreign policy deliberation processes. The specific cases chosen for each presidency are:

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George W. Bush :

Invasion of Afghanistan (2001);

Invasion of Iraq (2003);

Military surge in Iraq (2007).

Barack Obama:

Military surge in Afghanistan (2009);

Response to the Egyptian revolution (2011);

Response to the Syrian chemical weapons attack (2013).

Donald Trump:

Response to the Syrian chemical weapons attack (2017);

Response to the downing of a U.S. drone (2019);

Decision to kill General Suleimani (2020).

A series of six criteria guided our selection by narrowing the universe of foreign policy decision-making instances. First, the cases are all commensurable instances of crisis decision-making. While the definition of what constitutes a foreign policy crisis has generated considerable disagreement amongst the experts, the cases analyzed all comply with an accepted standard involving a sense of urgency in addressing a real or perceived threat to the national interest. Ultimately, crises are instances that deviate from ordinary circumstances which are routinely resolved through the government’s standard operating procedures (Houghton, 2018). As research has demonstrated, the perceived need to address the breakdown of the status quo makes the analysis of crisis decision-making a particularly unique opportunity for studying political leadership (Boin, ‘t Hart, and van Esch, 2016).

Second, the cases are all instances in which decision-making groups (such as the president’s national security team) were called upon and employed to advise the president, whether in a formal or informal context. This criterion ensures that the decisions analyzed in this book all resulted from effective deliberation processes, in contrast to decisions lacking any structured or intentional deliberation procedure – such as the Trump administration’s withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (see Woodward, 2018) – or resulting from bureaucratic policy-making (see Allison and Zelikow, 1999).

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Third, the cases are all instances of unilateral U.S. foreign policy decision-making. While in some instances the U.S. did involve or cooperate with other international actors (be they states or international organizations), the decision processes determining U.S. policy were all initiated and carried out unilaterally by American decision-makers, rather than in a multilateral framework. For example, while the 2003 invasion of Iraq – i.e., Operation Iraqi Freedom – involved the deployment of ground troops from thirty-seven countries and the indirect support of about twenty other countries, the Bush administration’s decision to intervene militarily was not dependent on the decision processes of other allied nations.6

Fourth, all of the cases involve decisions regarding equivalent opponents. The policies specifically address a host of states that are similar in terms of their relationship with the U.S. More precisely, despite the fact each state differs in size and resources, they all share an asymmetric power relationship with their American counterpart. In other words, the relationship between the actors reveals a significant disparity with respect to the elements of military, economic, and political power broadly construed and that favor the U.S. This situation reinforces the previous criterion since research reveals that asymmetric relationships tend to lead the more powerful actor to act unilaterally and reject mediation (Quinn et al., 2007).

Fifth, all the cases share a commensurable political context in order to minimize the number of potentially confounding variables. Specifically, the cases are all framed within the context of the post-9/11 international security environment. After more than a decade of strategic uncertainty, the terrorist attacks of September 11 refocused international security concerns on transnational terrorism and failed states and the U.S. made the “war on terror” the centerpiece of its foreign policy (Leffler and Legro, 2011). Thus, while globalization continued to connect the world economically and culturally, after 9/11 Americans increasingly viewed “the world beyond their borders as a source of danger” requiring greater efforts to keep the danger afar (Jenkins, 2011: 196). Accordingly, we avoided selecting any cases involving the Bush administration prior to the September 11 terrorist attacks even if they complied with all the other criteria.

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Finally, and directly associated with the previous criterion, the cases all focus on decisions regarding U.S. policy in the Greater Middle East region.7 While the region had been of strategic importance to the U.S. for several decades, the attacks of September 11, 2001 made the Middle East the focal point of America’s grand strategy. As Benjamin Miller (2010: 49) observes, after the 2001 terrorist attacks, U.S. policy-makers and Americans in general increasingly came to view the Middle East “as a region particularly dangerous to U.S. national security – the region where the 9/11 terrorists came from and where their radical Islamic anti-US ideology developed.” Moreover, circumscribing the cases to a specific geographic region allows for a greater control of the situational variables (Haney, 2002).

Structure of the Book

The following chapter identifies the three conceptual models of presidential decision-making, emphasizing their key characteristics, as well their employment by past presidents. Having provided the conceptual framework required to understand the main differences in presidential advisory systems, the subsequent chapters in the book are divided into three distinct sections focusing on the presidencies of George W. Bush, Barack Obama, and Donald Trump.

The first section assesses the presidency of George W. Bush and begins with a brief account of his foreign policy objectives and the formulation of his national security advisory structure. Subsequently, Chapter 3 analyzes the Bush administration’s decision to invade of Afghanistan after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. Chapters 4 and 5 concentrate on the decisions of the Bush administration to invade Iraq in 2003 and the subsequent authorization to surge the number of U.S. military troops in the country in early 2008.

Section two focuses on the foreign policy crises faced by President Barack Obama. Chapter 6 assesses the administration’s deliberations regarding the proposal to increase the number of U.S. military forces in Afghanistan in 2009. Chapter 7 analyzes the Obama administration’s response to the Egyptian revolution of 2011. Chapter 8, for its part, reviews the decision facing President Obama in the sequence of the Syrian chemical weapons attack in 2013.

Section three provides an assessment of several foreign policy crises faced by President Donald Trump. Therefore, Chapter 9 analyzes the Trump administration’s response to the Syrian chemical weapons attack of 2017. Chapter 10 centers its analysis on the administration’s response to the downing of a U.S. drone in the Strait of Hormuz in 2019. Finally, Chapter 11 assesses the decision to authorize the killing of the Iranian General Qasem Suleimani in early-2020.

Chapter 12 concludes by summarizing the main finding in the book and developing a heuristic typology of the management models employed by the three different presidents.

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1 During the 2016 presidential campaign, Trump also told Reuters that he was open to talks with the North Korean leader (Holland and Flitter, 2016).

2 Kim Jong Un became the leader of North Korea after the death of his father, Kim Jong Il, in December 2011.

3 There is an ongoing debate regarding the role of the American presidency in foreign policy-making. Several scholars identify a swing among the Executive and Legislative branches in dominating U.S. foreign policy that varies with each particular historical period (see: Franck and Weisband, 1979; Mann, 1990; Peterson, 1994).

4 As a result of the recommendations put forward by Roosevelt’s Committee on Administrative Management (a.k.a., Brownlow Committee), the Reorganization Act of 1939 created the Executive Office of the President, the Employment Act of 1946 created the Council of Economic Advisers, and the National Security Act of 1947 created the National Security Council.

5 As Beck (2017) and Seawright and Gerring (2008) highlight, case selection is, on many occasions, contingent on pragmatic considerations, such as the immediacy of events, availability of resources, and the accessibility and availability of detailed public accounts of the decision-making processes. While these considerations should be minimized in favor of methodological justifications, they do not, however, inevitably diminish the validity of the cases.

6 For data on the force contributions of each individual country involved in Operation Iraqi Freedom see Carney (2011).

7 We use the term “Greater Middle East” to designate the region, identified in the 1950s by Secretary of State John Foster Dulles, stretching from Morocco to Pakistan (see Barrett, 2007).


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Baker, Peter, and Choe Sang-Hun. 2017, August 8. “Trump Threatens ‘Fire and Fury’ against North Korea if It Endangers U.S.” The New York Times. Available at https://www.nytimes.com/2017/08/08/world/asia/north-korea-un-sanctions-nuclear-missile-united-nations.html (August 9, 2017).

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Mitchell, David. 2005b. Making Foreign Policy: Presidential Management of the Decision-Making Process. Burlington, VT: Ashgate.

Mitchell, David, and Tansa Massoud. 2009. “Anatomy of Failure: Bush’s Decision-Making Process and the Iraq War.” Foreign Policy Analysis 5 (3): 265–286.

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Rothkopf, David. 2005. Running the World: The Inside Story of the National Security Council and the Architects of American Power. New York, NY: PublicAffairs.

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Management Models

Since the late-1940s several attempts have been made to try to provide the president with the institutional support required for formulating and coordinating policy more efficiently. It is commonly accepted that presidents should have access to a broad array of policy perspectives which can help them understand and systematically evaluate the complex political environment such that the most appropriate decisions regarding a specific policy may be derived. A president can turn to his advisors for many reasons – e.g., to satisfy cognitive needs and provide emotional support, understanding and support for decisions, and political legitimacy (George, 1981; ’t Hart, Stern, and Sundelius, 1997). However, advisors are particularly important as sources of information and advice which support policy decisions.1

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Most presidential scholars will agree that those individuals “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” (Pfiffner, 2009: 364). Besides providing the president with the necessary information and analysis regarding the possible alternatives and potential implications of a policy decision, advisors are also crucial in making sure that the president is not overwhelmed by a surge of data and competing proposals. As Andrew Rudalevige (2005) has pointed out, time and cognitive capacity limit the amount of practical information on any given issue a president can receive and process. Therefore, it is up to the president’s staff to help organize and analyze the available information and provide the president with the “good advice” required to make a decision.2

A president can try to secure good advice by being judicious in selecting personnel and implementing advisory structures which may help him acquire reliable, complete, diverse, and timely information and advice (Rudalevige, 2005). The structures, i.e., the organizational configurations that define the relationships between the presidential advisors and the president, are especially important since they can determine the advisory processes (Newmann, 2004).3 In other words, we can have a highly capable and skilled group of individuals available to assist the president in making decisions, but the advisory structure adopted may not guarantee that their expertise and advice reach the president. In a similar vein, a structure that is highly unregulated may overwhelm the president and hinder his attempts to decide effectively.

For several decades, presidential scholars have employed three conventional management models to help frame their analyses: formalistic, collegial, and competitive. These models were initially developed by Richard Tanner Johnson (1974) and Alexander George (1981) and have been subject to several revisions and adaptations over the years.4 Scholars have emphasized some of the models’ limitations (see Haney, 2002; Mitchell, 2005a). For example, some authors have pointed out that there is a high degree of overlap in the characteristics of the three models. Others have argued that the models’ theoretical assumptions are unrealistic and do not reflect the “real-world” processes of presidential policy-making. Still, some analysts highlight the models’ failure to account for the complex interplay between formal and informal procedures used by presidents. For instance, Mitchell (2005a) has provided an important contribution in this sense by highlighting how the level of presidential centralization is important in determining the decision-making process.

Nevertheless, as several authors have noted, while not exhausting all the possible formats presidents have employed to manage their advisory systems, the presidential management models developed by Johnson (1974) and George (1981) still offer a robust analytical framework for analyzing the decision-and policymaking processes.5 In fact, the authors agree with Haney’s (2002: 8) assessment that “much of what we do know about how presidents structure advisory groups is still drawn from the empirical work of Richard Johnson and Alexander George” and since then “there has been little empirical research on this topic that lends new insights.”

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Formalistic Model

The formalistic model emphasizes an orderly, disciplined, and hierarchical decision-making structure with well-defined formal routines and processes for soliciting, developing, and selecting policy proposals and recommendations. Walcott and Hult (2005) consider the formalistic approach to be the “standard model” of contemporary presidential decision-making. Variations of the formalistic model have been associated with several presidents, such as Harry Truman (George, 1981), Dwight Eisenhower (George, 1981; Johnson, 1974), Richard Nixon (George, 1981; Johnson, 1974; Mitchell, 2005b), Ronald Reagan (Pfiffner, 1986; Rudalevige, 2005; Walcott and Hult, 2005), and George W. Bush (Mitchell, 2005b; Rudalevige, 2005). Despite the inherent differences in the size and the configuration of the advisory structures in each of these administrations, the formalistic model reveals several distinguishing characteristics (George, 1981; Johnson, 1974; Porter, 1988):

President centralizes the advisory system in his White House staff which is responsible for managing the information flow to and from the president;

Division-of-labor based on the functional expertise of each department or agency, which briefs the president exclusively on the policy area under its jurisdiction;

Advisors, such as members of cabinet and heads of agencies, are responsible for collecting and forwarding information and advice from their subordinate units;

Advisory process is centered around briefing papers prepared by the responsible department or agencies;

White House staff, particularly the chief of staff, is responsible for filtering the incoming information from the members of cabinet and heads of agencies and formulating policy recommendations for presidential approval;

President abides by formal channels of communication and rarely circumvents cabinet heads in search of independent information.

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The formalistic model does not seek to develop a compromise policy solution that integrates the multiple conflicting perspectives and recommendations within the administration. Rather, as Johnson (1974: 4) has pointed out, the ultimate objective is to achieve “the best” decision. There is, thus, a rational choice perspective underlying this model which assumes that there are optimal policies that can be identified and implemented. While the staff breaks down problems into their pros and cons, usually emphasizing their technical criteria and considerations, the president is expected to decide on policy based solely on the merits of the information and advice received.

Studies over the years have emphasized several benefits of the formalistic model. For instance, by centralizing the management of the advisory process in the White House, the president guarantees a significant level of control over the decision-making process (Porter, 1988). He is also able to shield himself from the problems associated with bureaucratic politics. By defining formal hierarchical structures that are not dependent on interagency interactions, the president discourages conflict amongst his advisors (George, 1981; Johnson, 1974). In fact, by employing a formalistic model that uses a loyal and competent staffing system as a forum for surrogate discussions, the president seeks to avoid being overburdened by the bureaucratic skirmishes over policy (Porter, 1988; Walcott and Hult, 2005). Thus, the president reserves for himself the “responsibility for intellectual synthesis of specialized inputs on a policy problem received from his advisers” (George, 1981: 152).

However, the formalistic model also has many limitations which can impair the decision-making process. To begin with, by concentrating management of the process in a small group of key staffers, there is the risk that these individuals will become policy activists rather than neutral brokers who can guarantee that all the interested parties’ views are represented and that policy debates are balanced.6 As Porter long recognized:

As staffs specialize, and staff members become knowledgeable about a given policy area or problem, they usually develop strongly held views and opinions. Soon many become advocates, supporting specific positions in interagency discussions. Moreover, staff perceptions of what the President wants often undermine objectivity. On issues where presidential preferences do not exist or are not known, the temptation to anticipate them is negligible; but on issues where the President’s leanings are known, few can resist the temptation to offer advice or structure a problem to correspond with the Presidents preferences. (Porter, 1988: 239)

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Examples of active advocacy on the part of the president’s managerial staffers have abounded over the years. For instance, in developing the American diplomatic strategy for dealing with Vietnam in 1969, Henry Kissinger actively sought to exclude the advice provided by Secretary of State William Rogers, whom he believed could undermine his own influence in defining U.S. foreign policy (Mitchell, 2005a). This activism was particularly remarkable considering the role that Kissinger played as the ultimate gatekeeper in Nixon’s foreign policy-making system.7 Therefore, instead of guaranteeing that the president had access to multiple views and opinions on how to deal with Vietnam, Kissinger actively endeavored to block advice that clashed with his own proposals. In a similar fashion, during the George W. Bush administration’s debates on how to deal with Iraq, Vice President Dick Cheney and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld were critical in limiting the president’s options by curtailing the flow of information from the different agencies. In particular, as Mitchell and Massoud (2009: 273) point out, “Cheney was instrumental in placing deputies in various agencies that helped to shape and limit the options to be considered.”

Regardless of the role of the members of the managerial staff, the model places considerable burden on the aides responsible for managing and supervising the advisory process (Porter, 1988). In periods of crisis or those beset with multiple serious issues, an amplified information flow can overwhelm even the most capable manager and lead to a bottleneck of decision-making process. Moreover, the hierarchical structure of the formalistic model can also disenfranchise key officials and, consequently, hamper the president’s leadership (Porter, 1988). If cabinet and agency heads feel they are not involved (or are viewed by their subordinates as not being involved) in the decision-making process, their commitment to the policy may be weakened. This is particularly significant when considering that it is the responsibility of these officials to oversee the effective implementation of the policies chosen by the president.

Collegial Model

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The collegial model’s central tenets stand in stark contrast to the formalistic model described above.8 Contrary to the highly centralized and hierarchical structuring of the formalistic model, the collegial model emphasizes inclusiveness through the creation of a collective problem-solving environment. Initially modeled on the Kennedy administration’s handling of the Cuban missile crisis (George, 1981; Hess, 1988; Johnson, 1974; Pfiffner, 1986) this model has been referenced on numerous occasions for its purported benefits to foreign policy decision-making (Bose, 1998). The model has since then been associated with presidents Lyndon Johnson (Hess, 1988; Pfiffner, 1986), Jimmy Carter (da Vinha, 2016; Moens, 1990), George H. W. Bush (Snow and Haney, 2018), Bill Clinton (Mitchell, 2010; Snow and Haney, 2018), and Barack Obama (Hook, 2016; Rothkopf, 2014; Snow and Haney, 2018).

The collegial model is essentially characterized by the following distinctive features (George, 1981; Johnson, 1974; Porter, 1988):

President acts as a magistrate who is directly exposed to the competing arguments and proposals of the different policy advocates;

Advisors function as a “problem-solving” team which are incentivized to openly air and discuss their differing views;

Policy discussions are kept informal enough to encourage forthright discussions of all the information and the competing ideas and proposals;

Advisors are encouraged to act as policy generalists, rather than functional experts;

Information flows into the problem-solving team from multiple sources in the bureaucracy and is not subject to individual filters;

President occasionally allocates overlapping assignments and will occasionally seek alternative sources of advice from subordinates.

Therefore, in contrast to the formalistic model, the collegial system requires a much more active involvement on the part of the president. As Alexander Moens (1990: 915) has made clear, the “president should follow the advocacy process closely by attending meetings if possible and by reading reports on all policy options so as to be informed about both the search and evaluation stages of the process.” This naturally requires that the president must have a significant level of tolerance toward the heightened degree of competition among his advisors. However, the collegial model does admit the use of custodian-manager, usually in the person of the APNSA, who can help the president manage the advisory process and guarantee he has access to a broad spectrum of assessments and proposals (George, 1981; Moens, 1990; Porter, 1988).

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The comprehensive dimension of the collegial system also diverges from the formalistic model’s focus on “optimal” policy solutions. In other words, by seeking to create an inclusive advisory process, the collegial model emphasizes negotiation and compromise among the multiple advisors – i.e., it seeks to harness the opportunities and strengths offered by each advocate. This implies that the resulting policies are usually “substantively sound and politically doable” (Johnson, 1974: 7). By airing opposing views and opinions, rather than suppressing them, the collegial model exposes the trade-offs inherent in each proposal and allows the president to be cognizant of the multiple complex interests, objectives, and implications and to try and reconcile them in the formulation of policy. Moreover, by including all the relevant policy actors in the decision-making process, the collegial model reinforces the president’s standing with the executive bureaucracy and helps assure greater congruence between policy formulation and implementation. According to Porter (1988: 244), “individuals responsible for implementing a policy are less likely to undermine a decision with which they disagree if they had an opportunity to express their views than if they have been excluded.”

Yet, regardless of its many acclaimed virtues, the collegial model also reveals several shortcomings. To begin with, the comprehensive nature of the deliberation process places a significant demand on the president and/or his custodian-manager to guarantee that all views and opinions are presented and discussed (Johnson, 1974). Therefore, patience and time are essential for guaranteeing an effective search for policy alternatives – resources which are not always afforded to the president. Moreover, the extended number of individuals involved in the policy debate also increases the risk of leaks regarding sensitive information (Porter, 1988). Leaks might serve simply to try to frame public opinion during an ongoing policy debate, but they can also be used to try to block a policy from being discussed altogether (Hoyt and Garrison, 1997).

Another shortcoming in the model is the fact that it does not guarantee that the different advocates will represent all the available options. Participation alone does not assure that the advisors will present all the relevant information and policy alternatives. Be it for bureaucratic turf wars or political compliance, advisors may intentionally or unintentionally withhold information and advice, therefore, limiting the choices available to the president. Moens’ analysis of the Carter administration’s foreign policy system is illustrative of how, despite the existence of an open system, advisors can fail to effectively contribute to the debate:9

Carter’s foreign policy decision-making process was open enough to allow for a variety of policy advice and sufficiently structured to allow for an analysis of the process based on the ideal model of multiple advocacy. ( …) [However,] Carter’s frequent claims of running an open administration in which people could formulate their own policy positions and argue them before the president was not sufficient to bring about a rigorous decision process. The ideological conformity among Vance, Brown, Mondale, Jordan, and several key assistant secretaries of state negated the potential benefits to be derived from the NSC policy-making structures as well as an open-minded and accessible president. (Moens, 1990: 945, 947)

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Competitive Model

The competitive model is fashioned on Franklin D. Roosevelt’s unique management style and has not been associated with any other president since. Its defining features are, therefore, exclusively determined by the behavior exhibited by Roosevelt throughout his long presidential tenure. Considered one of the most politically proficient presidents of the modern era, Roosevelt espoused a “competitive theory of administration” in which he kept “grants of authority incomplete, jurisdictions uncertain, charters overlapping” (Schlesinger Jr., 2003: 528). Roosevelt’s high level of tolerance to conflict and disagreement led him to actively incentivize competition among his advisors in order to harness new and diverse views and opinions (Greenstein, 2009; Johnson, 1974).

Accordingly, taking into account Roosevelt’s management style, the competitive model is distinguished by several unique characteristics (George, 1981; Johnson, 1974; Porter, 1988):

President purposefully encourages competition among advisors by attributing overlapping assignments and authority to individuals on an ad hoc basis and, subsequently, fostering organizational and jurisdictional ambiguity;

President centralizes the decision-making process on himself by having competing advisors forced to bring policy problems and advice to him for final resolution;

Existence of multiple channels of communication which the president frequently uses to communicate directly with subordinates in the bureaucracy (circumventing cabinet and agency heads);

Minimal cooperation and collaboration among advisors;

President manages the advisory system selectively, thus, avoiding being overloaded by policy discussions and recommendations (insisting on occasions that subordinates resolve existing conflicts among themselves).

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The competitive model ultimately seeks to encourage the uninhibited airing of opinions, analyses, and advice and generate innovative policy solutions. While the model has seldom been implemented beyond Roosevelt, several presidential scholars have underlined its multiple benefits. The pater familias of modern presidential studies, Richard Neustadt, hailed competition as indispensable to presidential success. Recognizing the limitations imposed by the growing institutionalization of the modern presidency, Neustadt argued in favor of the benefits reaped from sowing rivalry amongst presidential advisors. More precisely, he claimed that “In their relations to each other and the President, his official associates need stirring up; not with such frequency that they shrink into immobility, but just enough so that they are never absolutely confident in unchecked judgement of their chief’s own judgement, or of their colleagues’ either” (Neustadt, 1956: 644). Others have made similar claims by endorsing the virtues of competition in generating “parallel processing” that provides presidents with better information and advice (Rudalevige, 2005).

Several other benefits have been associated with the competitive model. Porter (1988) has accentuated the appeal that this approach has in communicating an image of presidential command. By having all advisors report directly to him, the president is able to convey a sense of leadership and control that may not otherwise be achieved. In addition, the model’s lack of routine and systematic processes offers the president a great deal of flexibility and allows him to act quickly and integrate multiple political considerations into a single process. Moreover, competition allegedly fosters responsibility and accountability. As Roosevelt himself acknowledged, besides stimulating innovative ideas, rivalry “keeps them honest too ( …) The fact that there is somebody else in the field who knows what you are doing is a strong incentive to strict honesty” (Roosevelt cited in Schlesinger Jr., 2003: 535).

However, just like the previous approaches, the competitive model reveals several limitations of its own. While Mitchell (2005a) claims there is difficulty in distinguishing between the competitive and collegial models, there are several key distinctions which merit consideration.10 For starters, the competitive model places a high burden on the president’s limited resources, namely on his time (Johnson, 1974; Porter, 1988). Contrary to its collegial counterpart, the competitive model minimizes the use of standardized and systematic patterns of policy deliberation. More precisely, the lack of formally structured processes creates a constant flux of information and a level of interaction which are not always easily managed by the president due to the pressing obligations of his office. The constant and overlapping flow of information also implies that the president is personally responsible for discerning what information is relevant and reliable and formulating a set of coherent policies within the administration. In other words, the lack of planning and formal procedures hinders the development of a comprehensive decision-making process. In its place surface haphazard and ad hoc procedures and policies which can ultimately undermine a president’s longterm success:

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Adhocracy’s random way of assigning responsibilities makes comprehensive examination of a policy area difficult and unlikely. There is little order in how interdepartmental issues arise and are resolved. New initiatives and policies are generally studied piecemeal. Different individuals and groups are responsible for various pieces of a policy in a given area. No one other than the President is responsible for insuring that important issues receive presidential consideration and that both immediate and long-term issues in broad areas of public policy are treated comprehensively. (Porter, 1988: 233–234)

Furthermore, the competitive model’s emphasis on rivalry is prone to generating conflict among the president’s subordinates. Internal conflict among political rivals has traditionally led to attempts of manipulating or “rigging” the policy-making process (Hoyt and Garrison, 1997; Stern and Sundelius, 1997). As the studies of the Roosevelt presidency attest, by seeking to fill the role of the final arbitrator between competing advisors, the president created a system in which his aides acted as adversaries instead of carrying out their roles as policy analysts. Johnson (1974: 6) has demonstrated how the struggle among Roosevelt’s advisors led them, on many occasions, “toward extreme and intransigent positions” which many times resulted in withholding information from the president or leaking information in order to target adversaries or limit the president’s options. The damaging consequences of the adversarial relationship fostered by competition cannot and should not be underestimated in designing and implementing presidential advisory systems.

As mentioned above, the three models are ideal-type conceptual and analytical frameworks (see Table 1). In reality, they are not mutually exclusive, and presidents can and do adopt numerous elements and different mixes from each (George, 1981; Porter, 1988). Ultimately, each president employs the management model he believes best helps him deal with the challenges of the decision-making process. These choices are also evidently tempered by a wide assortment of personal traits and proclivities which are exclusive to each individual president such as his need for power and control (Mitchell, 2005a; Preston, 2000), sense of efficacy (George, 1981), political experience and knowledge (Neustadt, 1956; Preston, 2001; 2000), political skill (Greenstein, 2009), cognitive style and complexity (George, 1981; Greenstein, 2009; Hermann et al., 2001; Preston, 2000), level of tolerance toward political conflict (George, 1981; Johnson, 1974), and political strategy (Newmann, 2004), as well as the political context at each particular moment in time (Hermann et al., 2001; Johnson, 1974; Neustadt, 1956).

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Table 1 Main Characteristics of the Three Presidential Management Models. (Source: Authors)

Competitive Model Formalistic Model Collegial Model
What is the role of the president in the advisory system? President purposefully encourages competition among advisors (attributing overlapping assignments and authority to individuals on an ad hoc basis, fostering organizational and jurisdictional ambiguity); President centralizes the decision-making process on himself. President centralizes the advisory system in White House staff which is responsible for managing the information flow to and from the president; President abides to formal channels of communication and rarely circumvents cabinet heads in search of independent information. President acts as a magistrate who is directly exposed to the competing arguments and proposals; President occasionally allocates overlapping assignments and will occasionally seek alternative sources of advice.
What is the role and relationship amongst the advisors in the advisory system? Minimal cooperation and collaboration among advisors; Competition among advisors fosters internal rivalries and strife. Division-of-labor based on the functional expertise Advisors responsible for collecting and forwarding information and advice from their subordinate units; White House staff responsible for filtering the incoming information and formulating policy recommendations for approval. Advisors function as a “problem-solving” team; Advisors are encouraged to act as policy generalists, rather than functional experts.
←33 | 34→ What are the procedures for managing the advisory system? Existence of multiple channels of communication which the president uses to communicate directly with subordinates (circumventing cabinet and agency heads); President manages the advisory system selectively, thus, avoiding being overloaded by policy discussions and recommendations. Advisory process centered around briefing papers prepared by the competent department or agencies. Policy discussions are kept informal enough to encourage forthright discussions; Information flows into the problem-solving team from multiple sources and is not subject to individual filters.

Research reveals that whereas Truman, Eisenhower, Nixon, and Reagan all employed formalistic management styles, each president developed his own unique organizational structures and processes. For instance, Truman employed a highly formalistic model of decision-making in which lines of communication to and from the president were clearly identified and institutionalized. This system instilled a clear division of responsibilities and work among the different advisory bodies and disincentivized any interagency debate and open discussion of opposing views and proposals, as well as suppressed any competition among the departments and agencies (Haney, 2002). In this sense, Truman sought to unravel and fix the chaotic decision-making processes he inherited from Roosevelt. By providing a more structured and formalized system in which the president’s interlocutors were well defined, “Truman tried to weaken the game of bureaucratic politics by strengthening each department head’s control over his particular domain and by delegating presidential responsibility to him” (George, 1981: 151).

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Eisenhower, for his part, also instituted a formalistic model. However, in an attempt to position himself “above politics” and maintain unity amongst his administration, Eisenhower’s system relied on the use of trusted “gate-keepers” to moderate internal policy debates (Idem). Eisenhower was aware of the natural tendency for policy discussions to generate tension and conflict among advisors. He, therefore, sought to implement a system that could manage and resolve disagreements and reconcile divergent views at the lower levels of his administration. He would routinely use trusted advisors to serve as honest brokers who could mediate the policy deliberation process and formulate policy recommendations for his approval. Sherman Adams, the president’s chief of staff, served as a gatekeeper for domestic policy, while in the realm of foreign policy Eisenhower relied on John Foster Dulles (Secretary of State) to facilitate the policy-making process. Therefore, true to the conceptual ideal of the formalistic model, Eisenhower established a system where formal recommendations were presented for final consideration after policy disputes were hashed out amongst subordinates under the supervision of the president’s trusted aides. As George (1981: 152–153) clarifies, “formal meetings of the large NSC were often preceded by less formal ʻwarm-upʼ sessions with a smaller group of advisors that provided opportunities for genuine policy debate.”

Nixon’s well-known aversion to personal conflict led him to implement an even more centralized decision-making structure where very few individuals participated in the final deliberation process (George, 1981; Haney, 2002; Johnson, 1974; Mitchell, 2005b). In order to shield himself from the political infighting and, simultaneously, maintain control of the decision-making process, Nixon also relied heavily on trusted gate-keepers to mediate and manage policy deliberations. Accordingly, John Ehrlichman managed issues regarding domestic policy while Henry Kissinger was responsible for managing international affairs. In his role of gate-keeper, Kissinger managed and chaired a complex system of six NSC special committees and ad hoc working groups, as well as scrupulously oversaw the work of six lower-level inter-departmental regional groups (George, 1981). Like Eisenhower, Nixon used specialized committees to analyze and discuss the policy options available to the administration. However, whereas Eisenhower sought that policy recommendations be hashed out by his subordinates before being submitted to him for final approval, Nixon used his APNSA and the NSC to concentrate the final decision-making process in the Nixon-Kissinger dyad. The level of centralization in decision-making that Nixon established was unprecedented, as George (1981: 157) notes “a novel, unconventional policymaking structure was created and superimposed upon the departments and largely superseded the traditional hierarchical policymaking system.”

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Likewise, Ronald Reagan also sought to avoid confrontation amongst his advisors. However, his high degree of emotional intelligence made him less insecure and, therefore, less fixated on trying to control the decision-making process. Moreover, his political aloofness and hands-off approach to managing the executive branch led him, in contrast to Nixon, to delegate significant authority to his key advisors (Greenstein, 2009; Mitchell, 2005b). Reagan (1990: 161) believed that the role of a chief executive was “to set broad policy and general ground rules, tell people what he or she wants them to do, let them do it.” Accordingly, Reagan set out the broad general priorities for his presidency and relied on a set of trusted advisors who were responsible for managing interagency negotiations and hashing out policy solutions amongst themselves. His disregard for policy minutia and his detachment from the policy-making procedures led to the establishment of a system in which the president was presented with policy solutions which were developed by his aides without his direct participation (Mitchell, 2005b).

In a similar vein, presidents employing collegial models also instill distinctive features in their advisory processes. The Kennedy administration epitomizes the team problem-solving approach idealized by the collegial model. Kennedy sought to implement a more comprehensive deliberation process and to dismantle the formal NSC structures that he inherited from the Eisenhower administration. The Bay of Pigs debacle persuaded him to establish a system based on open and unhindered debates with multiple perspectives and sources of information. This approach is consistent with what Newmann (2015: 133) considers to be Kennedy’s “love of the pulling and hauling of politics and his need to be immersed in it, his competitive nature which led him to seek personal control over the process, or his general skepticism toward experts, particularly those in the military.”

In coming to office, Carter also wanted to rebalance foreign policy-making, particularly by breaking with the Kissinger-dominated approach and ending the dominance of the NSC in defining foreign policy. In particular, Carter sought a more collegially-oriented approach in which he would involve his cabinet in the decision-making process. In order to allow advisors to have greater access to him, Carter initially refrained from appointing a chief of staff in hope of avoiding hierarchical mechanisms which might hinder interaction between the White House and the rest of the administration. While formal foreign policy decisions would still be made in the NSC’s standing committees – i.e., the Policy Review Committee (PRC) and the Special Coordination Committee (SCC) – the system did allow cabinet heads to engage directly with Carter on international and national security issues since Carter wanted his cabinet secretaries to participate in a team-like style in the NSC decision-making process (da Vinha, 2017).

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In contrast, Clinton’s collegial approach resulted more from his lack of personal discipline than from any elaborate strategy to design and institute a collective problem-solving framework (Greenstein, 2009; Mitchell, 2005b). The lack of well-defined roles in Clinton’s White House has led observers to compare his administration “to a little boys’ soccer team with no assigned positions and each player chasing the ball” (Greenstein, 2009: 186). In fact, research carried out by Mitchell (2005b) reveals his irregular pattern of interaction with his advisors and attests to his disposition to delegate a significant amount of authority to his aides who played a critical role in foreign policy-making.

Lastly, while the competitive model is fashioned exclusively on how Roosevelt managed his administration, his approach was also highly predicated upon his unique personal traits and idiosyncratic leadership style. More precisely, Roosevelt was ideologically flexible and highly tolerant to political infighting, thus allowing him to agilely maneuver through conflicting perspectives and proposals and incorporate them into his political program (Johnson, 1974). In addition, Roosevelt’s extensive political experience also fostered his proclivity for stimulating competition. According to Greenstein (2009: 17), “no other president has been more politically proficient than FDR.” His vast understanding of the inner workings of politics, therefore, helped him successfully manage the chaos resulting from overlapping assignments and exercise a significant degree of influence in negotiating policy outcomes (Dickinson, 1997). However, we should remember that Roosevelt had yet to contend with what John Burke (2014) has designated as the “institutional presidency” and its ever-growing size and functional specialization.

In some instances, presidents implement hybrid management approaches which contain important elements of two or more models. For instance, Lyndon Johnson used elements of both the formalistic and the collegial models. In studying the management of the Tonkin Gulf crisis and the Tet Offensive, Haney (2002) found that Johnson used a small group of advisors – McGeorge Bundy, Dean Rusk, Robert McNamara, and General Earle Wheeler – to discuss policy options and assist him in the final decision-making processes. However, this collegial team “sat above a formalistic structure that was hierarchical in nature, operated within clear jurisdictional boundaries, and funneled information to the president only through one of the members of the small unit at the top” (Haney, 2002: 117).

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Moreover, presidential advisory systems tend to evolve over time. Research on multiple presidential administrations has demonstrated that the relationship between presidents and their advisors change over the course of their presidencies (da Vinha, 2016; Link, 2000; Newmann, 2001; 2004; Stern and Sundelius, 1997).11 Newmann’s (2015; 2004) research demonstrates how, particularly in the realm of national security and foreign policy, all presidents tend to gradually move away from their initial formal interagency structures and adopt more informal and confidence-based advisory structures. More precisely, Newmann (2001; 2004) argues that all presidential administrations reveal a similar evolutionary pattern that begins with a formal NSC-based interagency process, subsequently evolving into informal structures (e.g., specific committees, unofficial gatherings, lunches, telephone conversations, and one-on-one meetings) and ultimately to the establishment of confidence structures in which presidents come to rely on only one or two trusted advisors. According to the author, the evolution in favor of informal structures and processes is due to the belief that the formal structures (e. g., the cabinet, NSC) are “too large, too slow, too leaky, or too impersonal a forum for serious consideration of crucial policy issues” (Newmann, 2004: 277). Newmann’s (2001; 2004; 2015) studies detail the dynamic patterns of the Eisenhower, Kennedy, Carter, Reagan, and George H. W. Bush decision-making structures, emphasizing how the “evolution model” influenced each administration’s foreign policy-making to different degrees.

In a similar vein, the work of da Vinha (2016) and Link (2000) highlight how throughout his presidency, Carter also relied on informal decision-making structures and processes, such as the Friday foreign affairs breakfasts and the weekly Vance, Brown, and Brzezinski (V-B-B) luncheons. Moreover, in accordance with Newmann’s premises, this research attests that towards the end of his tenure, Carter increasingly came to favor Brzezinski as his most trusted gate-keeper:

In fact, Brzezinski’s power grew as he increasingly assumed greater control over the interpretation of interagency meetings and denied alternative perspectives from reaching the president. In addition, the APNSA’s capacity to coordinate and draft the conclusions and proposals from many of the formal and informal policy meetings reinforced his influence over the decision-making process. (…) This trend was reinforced by Brown’s gradual shift in policy perspectives during the course of the Carter presidency and that contributed to a change in the power structure in the foreign policy team. As Brown increasingly assumed a more assertive U.S. stance on international issues, he strengthened Brzezinski’s position. (da Vinha, 2016: 636)

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Therefore, research attests to the fact that management models are flexible and are subject to variation in accordance with the needs of each individual president. Nevertheless, they are a useful analytical framework for helping us understand how presidents organize and manage their foreign policy-making processes. In the subsequent sections, we will use the conceptual models as a point of reference for analyzing how presidents Bush, Obama, and Trump addressed a series of foreign policy crises.


1 It should be noted that some scholars, such as Alexander George (1997) and Richard Pious (2002), argue that good advisory systems do not per se guarantee good decisions and that a sound decision can be obtained without necessarily involving a thorough canvassing of problems, information, and options.

2 Taking into consideration the informational limitations placed on the president, Rudalevige (2005: 340) defines “good advice” as that information which complies with the following criteria: 1) the information must be useful and have realistic applicability; 2) the information must be “comprehensive” and consider all the reasonable options and evaluate their potential success; and 3) the information must be diverse – i.e., by having a neutral broker assure that both the dominant and diverging views are represented. Similarly, George (1981: 10) has identified five critical procedural tasks in effective decision-making which necessarily imply the active participation and contribution of the president’s advisors: 1) ensure sufficient information; 2) facilitate consideration of major values and interests; 3) assure wide range of options; 4) provide careful consideration of problems; and 5) receptivity to policy outcomes.

3 By processes we are referring to the formal and informal tasks performed by advisory groups and that ultimately lead to a policy decision (Haney, 2002).

4 See, for example, Haney (2002, 2005), Mitchell (2005a), Pfiffner (2005), and Walcott and Hult (2005). Porter (1988) also provides three very similar models of presidential management, but employs a different terminology for each: i.e., centralized, adhoc-racy, and multiple advocacy.

5 Roger Porter’s (1988) study of the Economic Policy Board has also contributed to this typology by developing the conceptual underpinnings of the three different models.

6 For a description of the characteristics of an honest broker see Burke (2005) and Porter (1988).

7 A gatekeeper is a staff member who is responsible for screening information and determining access to the president (see Mitchell 2005b).

8 George (1981) and Johnson’s (1974) collegial model parallels the multiple advocacy structure identified by Porter (1988).

9 Moens’ analysis focuses on the deliberation processes regarding the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks II, the Ogaden war, the normalization of relations with China, and the fall of the Shah Reza Pahlavi.

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10 Mitchell (2005a: 185) actually argues that the “competitive model is a variation of the collegial structure, where the president highly centralizes the decision-making process.”

11 Some researchers have contested the dynamic nature of the advisory process. For example, Mitchell (2005b) argues that once presidential advisory systems are established they do not change.


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Section I
President George W. Bush

President George W. Bush

Expectations were high for George W. Bush when he announced his presidential bid in June 1999. His experience as a corporate CEO and as the Governor of Texas had cemented the view among many that he was a highly competent and accomplished leader. This reputation led some to call him the CEO president (Suskind, 2004). In a similar vein, early in his tenure, the professor of public management Donald Kettl (2003: 2) argued that Bush was “the very model of a modern MBA president.” On the heels of the 2002 midterm elections, authors Carolyn Thompson and Jim Ware (2003: 1) claimed he was a “brilliant leader.” The alleged key to Bush’s success was his leadership style, which Kettl summarized:

Bush has carefully honed a style, based on building an effective team, to make strong decisions. He doesn’t try to master the complexities of decisions. Rather, he builds a team, he makes them master the complexities, he has them frame the issues – and then he decides, firmly and without second thoughts. (Kettl, 2003: 1)

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This assessment was consistent with Bush’s own philosophy about leadership. As he acknowledged in the run up to his 2000 presidential campaign, “my job is to set the agenda and framework, to lay out the principles by which we operate and make decisions, and then delegate much of the process to [my staff]” (Bush, 1999: 104). However, despite the exaltation around his vaunted corporate leadership style and his insistence of focusing on the “big picture,” Bush was not known to hold a well-defined and overarching policy vision. As presidential scholar Fred Greenstein (2001) argued in the weeks prior to his inauguration, Bush lacked deep personal policy commitments. Rather, he possessed “policy vision by proxy”, relying on his political affiliations and associates to help him develop a general framework for understanding and engaging with the political world (Greenstein, 2001: 79). In fact, when examining Bush’s foreign policy proposals during the campaign, Daalder and Lindsay (2005: 36) acknowledged that while there was a general coherence to his foreign policy outlook, “It could be seen more clearly in the writings and statements of the people he chose to advise him on foreign policy.”

Considering the importance attributed to his political network, the foreign policy team assembled by Bush was considered of particular importance in defining and implementing his administration’s policy. Bush’s selection of a group of experienced political operatives and public servants – Dick Cheney (Vice President), Colin Powell (Secretary of State), Donald Rumsfeld (Secretary of Defense), and Condoleezza Rice (APNSA) – garnered much praise from commentators and scholars alike (Gingrich, 2001; Greenstein, 2002). Not only did Bush assemble one of the most seasoned national security teams in U.S. history, but he also tried to establish a system where they would have regular access to him in an attempt to avoid having their opinions filtered through a “gate-keeper” (Kettl, 2003).

Bush and his advisors were critical of the Clinton administration’s foreign policy and vowed to change America’s involvement in international affairs. Bush was particularly critical of his predecessor’s commitment to humanitarian intervention around the world (Payne, 2001). In his presidential debate with the Democratic candidate Al Gore, Bush criticized the Clinton administration for its nation-building endeavors, claiming that U.S. military forces were “overextended” (The New York Times, 2000b). In a subsequent debate, Bush was more precise in establishing the conditions for deploying American troops:

… it must be in our vital interests whether we ever send troops. The mission must be clear. Soldiers must understand why we’re going. The force must be strong enough so that the mission can be accomplished. And the exit strategy needs to be well defined. (Bush reproduced in The New York Times, 2000a)

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Despite the criticism of Clinton’s record, Bush’s foreign policy goals were highly conventional (Chollet and Goldgeier, 2008; Daalder and Lindsay, 2005; Moens, 2004). Bush and his team maintained the previous administration’s confidence in promoting economic globalization, particularly fostering greater trade liberalization in the Western hemisphere (Moens, 2004; Tanter, 2001). In terms of security, the administration maintained the emphasis on being able to project power and deter threats, particularly the use of WMD by rogue regimes and hostile powers, as well as balance U.S. policy toward China and Russia (Rice, 2000). In order to achieve these objectives, the Bush administration focused on transforming the military and investing in the development of a national missile defense system (Daalder and Lindsay, 2005; Moens, 2004).

The terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 radically transformed the Bush administration’s view of the world and overhauled its original foreign policy agenda. In order to help him address the challenge posed by the terrorist attacks, the president assembled a “War Cabinet” which besides Cheney, Powell, Rumsfeld, and Rice, also included his Chief of Staff, Andrew Card, and the Director of the CIA, George Tenet (Pfiffner, 2004a). Moreover, September 11 consolidated and strengthened the relationship between the president and his main advisors, giving them a disproportional role in defining the administration’s foreign policy (Rothkopf, 2005). The terrorist attacks on the U.S. created a shared sense of purpose among the president and his advisors which was displayed by the resiliency and stability of his national security team (Table 2).

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Table 2 The George W. Bush National Security Council (2001–2009). Membership According to Presidential Directive-1 (2001). (Source: adopted from Congressional Research Service, 2017)

Statutory Members
President George W. Bush
Vice President Dick Cheney
Secretary of State Colin Powell (2001–2005) Condoleezza Rice (2005–2009)
Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld (2001–2006) Robert Gates (2006–2009)
Statutory Advisors
Director of Central Intelligence George Tenet (1996–2004) Porter Goss (2004–2006) Michael Hayden (2006–2009)
Director of National Intelligence (established December 2004) John Negroponte (2005–2007) Mike McConnell (2007–2009)
Chairman, Joint Chief of Staff Hugh Shelton (1997–2001) Richard Myers (2001–2005) Peter Pace (2005–2007) Michael Mullen (2007–2011)
Other Members/ Regular Attendees
Secretary of the Treasury Paul O’Neill (2001–2002) John Snow (2003–2006) Henry Paulson, Jr. (2006–2009)
Assistant to the President for National Security Affairs Condoleezza Rice (2001–2005) Stephen Hadley (2005–2009)
Named Attendees
Chief of Staff to the President Andrew Card (2001–2006) Joshua Bolton (2006–2009)
Assistant to the President for Economic Policy Lawrence Lindsey (2001–2002) Stephen Friedman (2002–2005) Allan Hubbard (2005–2007) Keith Hennessey (2007–2009)
←46 | 47→ Situational Attendees
Counsel to the President Alberto Gonzalez (2001–2005) Harriet Miers (2005–2007) Fred Fielding (2007–2009)
Attorney General John Ashcroft (2001–2005) Alberto Gonzalez (2005–2007) Michael Mukasey (2007–2009)
Director of the Office of Management and Budget Mitch Daniels (2001–2003) Joshua Bolton (2003–2006) Rob Portman (2006–2007) Jim Nussle (2007–2009)
Heads of other executive departments and agencies, as well as other senior officials*

*Attendance varied according to the subjects and demands of specific NSC meetings.

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3 “Fuck Diplomacy. We Are Going to War”: The Bush Administration’s Response to the September 11th Attacks1

Speaking immediately following the stunning news of the World Trade Center attacks, President George W. Bush labored to find the tone to express the administration’s perspective on the events. Caught out of context at a visit to Booker Elementary School in Sarasota, Florida, the president’s first words to the press gave an impression of poise as he reverted to boilerplate expressions of condolence and promises of justice. Yet in the hours that followed, President Bush visibly struggled to recapture that poise as his statements hardened and began to coalesce around twin themes of righteous indignation and retribution. Six hours after his initial, brief address outlined the “difficult moment” of a “national tragedy,” culminating in the bland assertion that “Terrorism against our Nation will not stand,” Bush struck a more assertive, aggressive tone when he addressed the press from Barksdale Air Force Base in Louisiana (Bush, 2001a). “Freedom, itself, was attacked this morning … and freedom will be defended … The United States will hunt down and punish those responsible for these cowardly acts … The resolve of our great Nation is being tested. But make no mistake: We will show the world that we will pass this test” (Bush, 2001b). While the delivery of his statement at Barksdale seemed halting, the response he envisioned would not be. The president began to outline the argument for a muscular, decisive blow against enemies not yet fully defined and not yet located. Bush resolved, at any rate, to employ a powerful military response.

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The form that response took, when implemented, moved the United States toward the emphases on unilateralism and preemption that underpinned the Bush Doctrine. But the process by which the Bush administration crafted its ultimatums to the Taliban, the Musharraf government in Pakistan, and made the decision to invade Afghanistan in pursuit of Osama bin-Laden had already moved substantially toward those ends during the day of the attack. Two fundamental assertions guided President Bush’s decision-making process in those first hours and days: that the attacks on the U.S. represented a watershed moment the likes of which the nation had not faced since Pearl Harbor in 1941, and that the military responses of his predecessor, Bill Clinton, were not sufficient. Bush committed to respond forcefully and with the conviction that the United States had suffered an unprovoked act of war (Bush, 2010). The fact the attack came from a terrorist organization, not a state, did nothing to lessen that resolve, even if it complicated the steps to action.

That the September 11 attacks represented a catastrophic intelligence failure manifested in the stunning events in Manhattan and Arlington, Virginia, is well-documented (Clarke, 2004). The sequence of missed opportunities and overlooked evidence stretching years before the fateful day emerged in subsequent analyses, and while the threat of Osama bin-Laden’s network had not gone unrecognized, the United States did not have plans in place for such an escalation. Department of Defense plans for Afghanistan and the surrounding region languished while other areas seemed more likely sources for threats (Daalder and Lindsay, 2005). The recent seizure of power by General Musharraf in Pakistan raised the recurring question of pragmatism in U.S. policy. The State Department had been applying pressure to the undemocratic regime, which now stood out as a prospective ally (Woodward, 2002). Bush and his advisors expressed frustration at the lack of an “off the shelf” response that had been tailored to Afghanistan, or that had existing resources staged in the region to intervene on a scale approaching war. While the Clinton administration developed assets to surveil and report on bin-Laden with the intention of executing him by missile strike, the limitations of the existing intelligence and the potential collateral damage meant the mission never took place (Clarke, 2004). In the eight months since the transfer of power, the Bush administration had made no further strides and at any rate rejected the limited approach after so devastating a blow as the attacks on New York and Arlington (Balz, Woodward, and Himmelman, 2002).

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The scale of the attacks as well as the intensity of Bush’s personal response to them certainly accelerated the decision-making process. Bush insisted on a public, interventionist approach that would draw a line under American resolve to act. Contrasting the response to the Clinton administration’s tendency to over-analyze, work within international frameworks and to expose as few American lives to mortal danger as possible, the Bush administration committed early to a response that would put boots on the ground and pressure other countries to declare for or against the United States. It would be an approach that the president knew would cost the blood of American soldiers, polarize diplomatic relations, and test the depth of global sympathy. The urgency driving President Bush’s response was expressed as both a personal reaction and a need to act while the balance of international support lay on the side of the United States. Shock at the scale and the nature of the attacks drove even opponents to express sympathy for the U.S. and condemnation for the terrorists. A key approach became acting rapidly to preserve the momentum that particular swing in perception created.

The policy formulation process in this case centered primarily around President Bush and though it previewed the high-profile rifts within his administration, the contours of those fault lines were not yet fixed. Within hours of the attacks, Bush had instructed Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld to begin preparing a military response and convened a National Security Council meeting by teleconference from Offutt Air Force Base, where CIA Director George Tenet confirmed the assessment that al-Qaeda was behind the attacks (Bush, 2010). By the time he delivered his Oval Office address to the nation, that evening at 8:30pm, the president’s public position already coalesced around the twin assertions that his administration “would find those responsible and bring them to justice” and would “make no distinction between the terrorists … and those who harbor them” (Bush, 2001c). The tone of the speech was intended to reassure the nation of the steadfastness and constancy of the institutions, while behind the scenes Bush later acknowledged that the attacks inspired an urgency to respond. In a December 2001 interview he indicated his blood was boiling (Balz and Woodward, 2002). The administration had been moving toward policy that would characterize the Bush Doctrine, but the decision to explicitly and publicly expand the scope beyond the terrorists themselves in the first hours after the strike appears to have been Bush’s alone (Bush, 2010).2 It would dramatically shape the steps taken in the coming days, and Bush articulated it simply in the National Security Council meeting that followed his speech, in which he reportedly said “We have to force countries to choose” (Bush cited in Woodward, 2002: 33).

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That motif of “with us or against us” recurred throughout the early stages of the evolving “war on terror.” The morning of September 12, the president convened the principals group out of the NSC and they began the process of identifying military options against al-Qaeda, the Taliban regime in Afghanistan, and the broad objectives of the campaign they envisioned. In this meeting, Bush listened to reports and gave overarching directives. When Cheney and Rumsfeld questioned whether the ultimate goal was eliminating al-Qaeda or rooting out terrorism in the broadest sense, Bush identified terrorism as the ultimate target, but al-Qaeda as the immediate one. When Cheney noted that states, rather than shadowy targets like terrorist organizations, could be more easily identified and attacked, Bush insisted that the first focus must be on bin-Laden and al-Qaeda. He queried Rumsfeld on available military options, and tasked Powell with drafting an ultimatum for the Taliban (Woodward, 2002). In effect, he adopted a supervisory role not unlike the Chief Executive Officer in a private sector institutional hierarchy (Kessler, 2004; Pfiffner, 2007).

In a second NSC meeting that afternoon, after Bush addressed the nation and congressional leaders to lay out the case for war, the principals turned to the question of building a coalition. While expressions of outrage over the attacks and support for the people of the U.S. flooded in, the polarizing rhetoric intended to put pressure on the regimes in Afghanistan and Pakistan might also create rifts with other states. Members of the administration recognized that the scope of the U.S. response could very well expend that newly gained emotional capital and alienate the international community. When Secretary Rumsfeld proposed expanding the response to include Saddam Hussein’s regime, administration members who would later support the invasion of Iraq, President Bush included, resisted on the basis that drawing Iraq into the September 11 retaliation would dilute international support (Woodward, 2002). The initial response would remain focused, directly bearing on al-Qaeda and bin-Laden as well as any regime that might shelter them. It must maintain the direct relationship between the terrorist attacks and the U.S. military intervention, and it must come quickly.

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September 13 and 14 were effectively spent with the principals completing assignments and briefing the president, while he worked to reassure the public. Between media coverage of Bush’s phone conference with Governor Pataki and Mayor Giuliani and his visit with wounded from the Pentagon, visible indications of a government active and uncowed, Secretary of State Powell drafted an ultimatum to present to the Musharraf government in Pakistan, along the lines of “for us or against us,” and a second ultimatum to the Taliban government in Afghanistan. The far-reaching, non-negotiable, seven-point series of demands on Pakistan effectively would turn the Taliban’s key ally against them and create the conditions for the United States to mount an extended military operation in Afghanistan. It was to be a litmus test of the Musharraf regime delivered on September 13, and Pakistan accepted the U.S. demands immediately. The State Department now turned to building the coalition and drafting the demands on the Taliban. Earlier in the morning of September 13, George Tenet and the CIA briefed the NSC and the president on options for direct action in Afghanistan, using Afghan Northern Alliance opposition fighters already funded to a limited extent by the CIA, and U.S. Special Forces units to pursue al-Qaeda on the ground. It would be a significant escalation, but would not require the two months to implement that Rumsfeld had suggested a full military response might demand. At the next NSC meeting, later that afternoon, Bush endorsed the CIA plan at the same time that he announced Pakistani accession to the State Department’s demands. The sticking point remained the Department of Defense, with Bush instructing Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Hugh Shelton and Secretary Rumsfeld to develop viable options by the planned weekend retreat for key advisors at Camp David (Balz, Woodward, and Himmelman, 2002). On September 14, the Departments of Defense and State pursued their assignments while the president visited the World Trade Center site.

Bush described the setting of Camp David as fostering “reflection and clear thinking” and noted their purpose on September 15 “to start developing the battle plan for Afghanistan” (Bush, 2010). At this point, the public expression of the ultimatum to the Taliban had not been made, but the momentum to war continued to gather. As Bush later told Bob Woodward, the purpose of the Camp David meeting was to gather advice and reach consensus. As Woodward (2002) characterized it, the gathering served to provide a check to the president’s inclinations. One of the key features of this approach was to place all of the principals around a table with the same access to the president, and with discussion taking place openly. Effectively, Bush placed himself at the center of the dialogue and then challenged advisors to advocate their positions, allowing them to respond to each other without sidebar discussions or gate-keepers such as Chief of Staff Andrew Card shaping the information. The unique circumstances of the September 11 attacks, the lack of preparation for contingencies and the urgency that the administration felt to respond decisively drove this approach, which deviated from the administration’s typical hierarchical, formalistic policymaking process.3

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While he was not present at the Camp David meeting to comment, Richard Clarke’s description of the standard decision-making process in the George W. Bush White House suggests how the roughly two dozen participants diverged from the norm. Clarke’s experience, spanning both Presidents Bush and the intervening Clinton years, contrasted the voracious appetite for information and viewpoints of Clinton with the compartmentalized and structured pathways of the Bushes. “The second Bush administration was like his father’s: NSC staff saw the president infrequently and always with a chaperon … Bush was informed by talking with a small set of senior advisors” (Clarke, 2004: 243). Clarke referenced how Clinton would often seek outside counsel and might well ask junior staff for their perspectives, while Bush trusted a small circle of advisors who years before had cut their teeth in the Reagan and George H.W. Bush administrations, several tracing back to Nixon. As Clarke described it, “Clinton liked to hold every issue before him(self)… examining it from every angle to the point of total distraction for his staff … Bush wanted to get to the bottom line and move on” (Idem: 244). Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld, APNSA Rice, Secretary of State Powell and Vice President Cheney, like Bush, placed emphasis on the chain of command and a systematic flow of information to the president.4 In subsequent policy decisions, this hierarchy grew more rigid and put greater power in the hands of close confidants of the president, but on September 15 the war council took on a more free-wheeling character.

The reliance Bush placed on the experience of his foreign policy team, the self-styled “Vulcans,” is well-established, and Bush himself acknowledged the “decades of crisis management experience” present at Camp David (Bush, 2010).5 The day gained momentum early with a presentation from CIA Director Tenet, fleshing out the emerging CIA plan to arm and support Northern Alliance fighters with American operatives on the ground and U.S. aerial assets flying out of Central Asian bases. Alongside the specific proposals, Tenet presented the president with a draft Memorandum of Notification that would authorize the CIA to “capture and detain persons who pose a continuing, serious threat of violence or death to U.S. persons and interests or who are planning terrorist activities” (United States Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, 2014).6 Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld reportedly voiced quick support for the CIA plan, as it would get boots on the ground and set up the prospect for the later, larger military operation to link up with the Northern Alliance fighters and their CIA paramilitary support (Woodward and Balz, 2002). Bush reportedly also expressed immediate support, almost certainly with the knowledge that full military operations would take weeks to set in motion while the CIA operation could be initiated in days. And as he later expressed in his memoir, (CIA teams and the Northern Alliance) “would form the initial thrust of the attack. By mating up our forces with the local opposition, we would avoid looking like a conqueror or occupier” (Bush, 2010: 187). All at the table were keenly aware of the British and Soviet experiences fighting in Afghanistan.

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Later in the morning, General Shelton presented three military options, all in rough outline and with differing timelines and degrees of U.S. engagement. The first, available immediately but also paralleling the means employed by Clinton after the 1998 African embassy bombings (which Bush had already rejected as ineffectual), was a cruise missile launch against al-Qaeda sites in Afghanistan. The second retained the cruise missiles and added a bombing campaign to strike more targets over a longer period of time, and the third added to the missile and bombing campaigns an invasion to root out al-Qaeda and dislodge the Taliban (Bush, 2010). The scale of the military presence (special forces alone versus regular troops in number) would determine the timeline of the third option, while the second could be employed much more quickly. Effectively, the questions were how soon the president wanted operations to commence and to what degree he was willing to put American lives at risk. The CIA proposal had already gained traction within the NSC and had momentum and the promise of a short timeline to implementation. At issue now was whether the Department of Defense would be mounting a campaign that would ultimately link up with the CIA operation. In this instance, President Bush stood back and allowed discussion to develop.

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The remainder of the discussion that morning circled around a few recurring topics: the challenges of fighting a war in Afghanistan, the potential for the conflict to spill over into Pakistan and disrupt the Musharraf regime, and the question of whether the operation should be expanded to Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. While it seemed unlikely to bear fruit, the group debated issuing an ultimatum and a deadline to the Taliban to turn over bin-Laden and the al-Qaeda leadership. On one hand, it might obviate the need to mount a risky campaign and even if ineffective would show the U.S. to be offering the Afghan government on option to avoid war. On the other, a timeline in particular would tip U.S. plans and open a window of opportunity for al-Qaeda to react prior to military action. Consensus favored the ultimatum with little anticipation of success. On Pakistan, APNSA Rice and Vice President Cheney voiced concern over the stability of the government while Secretary of State Powell argued that Musharraf was committed to engaging with the U.S. and thus could be relied upon to maintain his support. Bush responded by directing that a support package for Pakistan be drawn up. At several points, discussion returned to Iraq. Rice and Secretary Rumsfeld signaled a willingness to consider expanding operations to topple the Hussein regime, while Deputy Defense Secretary Wolfowitz leapt to advocate for it. Secretary Powell equally strongly opposed attacking Iraq on the basis that any such move would fracture the coalition he had been tasked with constructing for the operation against Afghanistan. Iraq could be reconsidered if evidence of Hussein supporting al-Qaeda came to light (and presumably would sway coalition members). Bush held back from engaging in the most animated of the discussion, though in December of 2001 he expressed the perspective that it was important to successfully complete one phase of the conflict before expanding operations (Woodward and Balz, 2002).7 When the group reconvened several hours later, Iraq ceased to be a point up for debate.

If the morning session was free flowing and relatively open to debate, especially once the presentations by the principals concluded, the late afternoon session proved much more structured and formal. While Rice had corralled Rumsfeld, Tenet, Powell and Andrew Card before the break to suggest a more disciplined approach for the afternoon, Bush himself took the initiative to direct each of the principals to provide a recommendation (Idem). In essence, the president returned to the hierarchic flow of information that he preferred and the clear, pointed statements that Richard Clarke identified as central to his decision-making process. Going around the table, first Powell, then Rumsfeld, Tenet, Card and finally Cheney outlined their positions. All supported military action in Afghanistan, with the balance of the principals in differing constellations advocating pressuring but not attempting to destroy the Taliban leadership; holding open the option to expand campaigns globally in the future but at the moment taking Iraq off the table; and identifying the primary threat as terrorism to avoid elevating Osama bin-Laden as the sole adversary. Having consulted his advisors, President Bush essentially retired to consider their advice over the next twenty-four hours (Woodward, 2002).

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The council at Camp David marked an unusual episode in the Bush White House’s policy-formulation process, though it was not entirely incongruous with other deliberations. The shock of the September 11 attacks, with the accompanying disruptions and demands on the president and Cabinet members, made the decision to isolate and deliberate as a group a reasonable response. This was the first truly momentous foreign policy decision the administration would make, and the stakes were high. The time afforded between the September 13 NSC meeting and the discussion on the 15th allowed participants to flesh out options, and the move away from a Washington still resonating from the blows could reasonably be expected to reduce the clamor. Though the morning session evolved into an unusually free-wheeling discussion that included input from deputies as well as principals, by the afternoon discussion was subordinated to statements of position from key advisors. While APNSA Rice and Chief of Staff Card did not take on clear roles as gatekeepers, the information hierarchy was restored. In the end, President Bush took on the role that he would prosaically describe five years later as “the decider.”

Going into Camp David, the administration had already committed to a forceful response to the attacks and had already laid the groundwork for a coalition to align against both al-Qaeda and the Taliban, turning the Afghan regime’s primary ally, Pakistan, into America’s key ally in the looming conflict. While the military had no “off the shelf” options prior to the attacks, the CIA had spent the past several years adapting plans, maintaining assets and keeping tabs on bin-Laden. Its access to bases in Uzbekistan from which it already operated drones over Afghanistan and its ongoing funding of members in the Northern Alliance meant that any U.S. action in the region would by necessity tap CIA resources (Idem). The scale of the terrorist attack, on U.S. soil, targeting civilians, intending to disrupt and spread panic worldwide had already inspired a shift in the administration’s rhetoric, promising to bring the perpetrators to justice. Many of the rough contours of the response that Bush would articulate to the NSC on September 17, 2001, were already apparent prior to the meeting at Camp David, two days earlier. While Bush, in his memoir, would place the decision to invade Afghanistan in the afternoon of Sunday, September 16, upon reflection after a moving sermon, the decision effectively was made in the afternoon of the previous day, when the principals on the NSC unanimously supported a “boots on the ground” option. Describing the move as “a departure from America’s policies over the past two decades,” and citing examples of withdrawal and long-distance strikes in response to terrorist attacks under Reagan and Clinton, Bush identified the September 11 attacks as a turning point at which the United States would take the offensive in the war on terror (Bush, 2010). His rhetoric over the preceding five days had left little space for anything less aggressive, and indeed both APNSA Rice and Secretary Rumsfeld in interviews expressed their convictions that Bush’s decision to go to war had essentially been made in the immediate aftermath of the attacks (Balz and Woodward, 2002).

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At the NSC meeting on the morning of September 17, President Bush endorsed all of the consensus items from the Camp David meeting. The CIA would lead the first stage of operations by increasing support for the Northern Alliance, placing operatives on the ground, and he would sign the new Memorandum of Notification, granting sweeping authorization to what would become the controversial extraordinary rendition system and lethal drone strikes against suspected terrorists. The Department of Defense would begin preparations for missile and air strikes and the deployment of ground forces to Afghanistan as soon as possible. Bush was opting for the most aggressive of the proposals that General Shelton had sketched out. Secretary of State Powell was instructed to issue an ultimatum to the Taliban that they must immediately turn over bin-Laden and al-Qaeda members or face imminent military action. Musharraf’s Pakistani government would receive a support package to demonstrate the U.S. commitment to its stability and further isolate the Taliban, while Hussein’s government in Iraq would be left out of the first round of operations. Reportedly, Bush said “I believe Iraq was involved, but I’m not going to strike them now” (Bush cited in Woodward, 2002: 99). The key policy decisions made, the challenge over the next days was to implement them: the ultimatum delivered to the Taliban on September 20, in the president’s speech to a joint session of Congress; the first CIA operatives placed in Afghanistan by the end of September; the bombing campaign begun on October 7 and the first Army Special Forces on the ground on October 19 (Daalder and Lindsay, 2005).


1 Michael Morell, the CIA briefer responsible for delivering President’s Daily Brief (PDB) reported Bush’s exasperated statement at the Camp David session when the administration was weighing policy options immediately after the September 11 attacks. According to Morell, Bush made the exclamation to him and to Cofer Black, the CIA operations officer whose briefings offered the clearest near-term aggressive response, and it came as Bush parted ways with a senior State Department official who had been lobbying the president to make diplomatic overtures to the Taliban (Morell and Harlow, 2015).

2 Woodward (2002) notes that Bush discussed the statement expanding the response with APNSA Rice prior to delivering the speech, but not with Secretaries Powell or Rumsfeld nor with Vice President Cheney. Woodward describes Bush as refining the text of the statement, which had originally been drafted by his chief speech-writer, Michael Gerson.

3 This much more free form, garrulous approach is also indicated in the Obama White House, and its adoption here suggests Bush responding to the unfamiliar circumstances. His deliberations on September 16, conducted without input from the group of principals returns to form of the top-down, formalistic approach. This is also a deliberation in which the president had already indicated his intent to pursue a military response. In a real sense, Bush was not convening his advisors to consider a full range of policy options, but rather to ratify his starting position and to identify how to achieve it.

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4 Bob Woodward recounts an example of managing the flow of information at the Camp David council when Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz interjected at several points’ arguments for expanding the September 11 response to include operations against Iraq. As Woodward (, 2002: 84–85) describes it, Chief of Staff Andrew Card took Rumsfeld and Wolfowitz aside during a break to tell them “The president will expect one person to speak for the Department of Defense.”

5 For an analysis of the emergence of Bush’s policy team, see Mann (2004).

6 September 17, 2001 Memorandum of Notification for Members of the National Security Council.

7 The Bush quotation from December that argued against expanding the conflict to Iraq in this early stage stated, “If we tried to do too many things – two things, for example, or three things – militarily, then… the lack of focus would have been a huge risk” (Woodward and Balz, 2002).


Balz, Dan, and Bob Woodward. 2002, February 3. “Bush Awaits History’s Judgment.” The Washington Post. Available at https://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2006/07/18/AR2006071800709.html (October 26, 2019).

Balz, Dan, Bob Woodward, and Jeff Himmelman. 2002. “Afghan Campaign’s Blueprint Emerges.” The Washington Post. Available at https://www.washingtonpost.com/archive/politics/2002/01/29/afghan-campaigns-blueprint-emerges/d058ea89-c03d-40ca-9b27-08f90210970b/ (October 24, 2019).

Bush, George. 1999. A Charge to Keep. New York, NY: William Morrow and Company.

Bush, George. 2001a, September 11. Remarks by the President after Two Planes Crash into World Trade Center. Available at https://georgewbush-whitehouse.archives.gov/news/releases/2001/09/20010911.html (June 24, 2020).

Bush, George. 2001b, September 11. Remarks by the President upon Arrival at Barksdale Air Force Base. Available at https://georgewbush-whitehouse.archives.gov/news/releases/2001/09/20010911-1.html (June 24, 2020).

Bush, George. 2001c, September 11. Address to the Nation on the Terrorist Attacks. Available at https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/documents/address-the-nation-the-terrorist-attacks (October 29, 2019).

Bush, George. 2010. Decision Points. New York. Broadway Paperbacks.

Chollet, Derek, and James Goldgeier. 2008. America between the Wars: From 11/9 to 9/11. The Misunderstood Years between the Fall of the Berlin Wall and the Start of the War on Terror. New York, NY: PublicAffairs.

Clarke, Richard. 2004. Against All Enemies: Inside America’s War on Terror. New York, NY: Free Press.

Congressional Research Service. 2017. “The National Security Council: Background and Issues for Congress.” Congressional Research Service. Available at https://www.everycrsreport.com/files/20170428_R44828_931a4e45b47a12a338cc1e3f7475d0fe05a25263.pdf (February 10, 2020).

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Daalder, Ivo, and James Lindsay. 2005. America Unbound: The Bush Revolution in Foreign Policy. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons.

Gingrich, Newt. 2001. “The Bush Team’s Prospects.” The Washington Quarterly 24 (2): 117–122.

Greenstein, Fred. 2001. “George W. Bush and the Ghosts of Presidents Past.” PS: Political Science and Politics 34 (1): 77–80.

Greenstein, Fred. 2002. “The Changing Leadership of George W. Bush: A Pre-and Post-9/11 Comparison.” Presidential Studies Quarterly 32 (2): 387–396.

Kessler, Ronald. 2004. A Matter of Character: Inside the White House of George W. Bush. New York, NY: Sentinel.

Kettl, Donald. 2003. Team Bush: Leadership Lessons from the Bush White House. New York, NY: McGraw-Hill.

Mann, James. 2004. Rise of the Vulcans: The History of Bush’s War Cabinet. New York, NY: Penguin.

Moens, Alexander. 2004. The Foreign Policy of George W. Bush: Values, Strategy, and Loyalty. Burlington, VT: Ashgate.

Morell, Michael, and Bill Harlow. 2015. The Great War of Our Time: The CIA’s Fight against Terrorism – From al Qa’ ida to ISIS. New York, NY: Twelve.

Payne, Rodger. 2001. “Bush: The Sequel.” International Studies Perspective 2 (30): 305–315.

Pfiffner, James. 2004a. “George W. Bush: Policy, Politics, and Personality.” In New Challenges for the American Presidency, edited by George Edwards III and Philip Davies, 161–181. New York, NY: Pearson Longman.

Pfiffner, James. 2007. “The First MBA President: George W. Bush as Public Administrator.” Public Administration Review 67 (1): 6–20.

Rice, Condoleezza. 2000. “Campaign 2000: Promoting the National Interest.” Foreign Affairs 79 (1): 45–62.

Rothkopf, David. 2005. Running the World: The Inside Story of the National Security Council and the Architects of American Power. New York, NY: PublicAffairs.

Suskind, Ron. 2004, October 17. “Faith, Certainty and the Presidency of George W. Bush.” The New York Times. Available at https://www.nytimes.com/2004/10/17/magazine/faith-certainty-and-the-presidency-of-george-w-bush.html (July 2, 2020).

Tanter, Raymond. 2001. “The World According to Bush.” The International Economy 15 (2): 24–29.

The New York Times. 2000a, October 17. “Transcript of the Presidential Debate.” The New York Times. Available at https://www.nytimes.com/2000/10/17/politics/transcript-of-the-presidential-debate.html (July 6, 2020).

The New York Times. 2000b, October 4. “Transcript of Debate Between Vice President Gore and Governor Bush.” The New York Times. Available at https://www.nytimes.com/2000/10/04/us/2000-campaign-transcript-debate-between-vice-president-gore-governor-bush.html (July 6, 2020).

Thompson, Carolyn, and Jim Ware. 2003. The Leadership Genius of George W. Bush: 10 Commonsense Lessons from the Commander in Chief. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons.

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United States Senate Select Committee on Intelligence. 2014. Report of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence Committee Study of the Central Intelligence Agency’s Detention and Interrogation Program. Washington DC: United States Senate. Available at https://www.intelligence.senate.gov/sites/default/files/documents/CRPT-113srpt288.pdf (February 26, 2020).

Woodward, Bob, and Dan Balz. 2002, January 28. “At Camp David, Advise and Dissent: Bush, Aides Grapple with War Plan.” The Washington Post. Available at http://www.la.utexas.edu/users/chenry/usme/press02/At%20Camp%20David,%20Advise%20and%20Dissent%20(washingtonpost_com).htm (October 30, 2019).

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“Our War on Terror Is
Well Begun, but It Is Only
Begun”: The Case for the
Invasion of Iraq

The decision to invade Iraq came at the end of a process that differed fundamentally from the decision to invade Afghanistan. The key actors in both decisions for military intervention were essentially the same, but the urgency to be seen to act quickly and decisively drove the relatively narrow focus on Afghanistan. That decision was “on rails” and so long as bin-Laden and al-Qaeda sheltered under the Taliban regime, the only matters up for debate were the timeline for the ultimatum and the scope of military action in Afghanistan. In the September 2001 deliberations, President Bush signaled clearly that his first priority was to act against those directly responsible for the attacks on United States soil and citizens, and Vice President Cheney and Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld prioritized Afghanistan despite their long-standing animosity toward the Hussein government in Iraq. While the articulation of a War on Terror held much broader implications, the urgency at that point justified a narrow response and, to extend the railroad metaphor, an express timetable. By the beginning of 2002, operations in Afghanistan failed to deliver al-Qaeda leadership despite toppling the Taliban regime, questions of whether bin-Laden himself had escaped through the border with Pakistan drove intelligence and media assessments of the war, and the Bush administration considered an expansion of its response.

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The decision to invade Iraq in 2003 appears by the accounts of most of the principals to have also been on rails. That is to say it advanced with only one possible destination, though it moved on a much slower timetable. Rather than emerging out of a deliberate, balanced effort to weigh evidence in order to guide policy decisions, it centered on a specific outcome and built the argument to justify a course of action to skeptical members of the administration, the American public, and the international community. It also started down that track prior to the September 11 attacks, as the objective of regime change in Iraq occupied senior administration officials from the first days of the administration (Woodward, 2004).1 Up until the al-Qaeda attacks, Iraq had been the dominant policy issue for the Bush administration in the greater Middle East, and it was only displaced by the catastrophic events. When Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz mooted the prospect of expanding the initial response to the September 11 attacks to invade Iraq, that suggestion was quickly set aside as shifting focus from the enemy at hand. However, he could make it knowing that unlike in Afghanistan, the administration and the military had plans and assets prepared for action (Idem). And he made it knowing that the ultimate objective of such a move resonated with the rest of the foreign policy advisors in the administration. Indeed, while President Bush made clear his priority remaining Afghanistan, he effectively shelved action on Iraq and Bush noted in his memoir that Vice President Cheney expressed a desire to reassess Iraq after the momentum shifted from Afghanistan (Bush, 2010). In his own memoir, Cheney affirmed that in September of 2001 he remained committed to addressing Iraq once al-Qaeda had been rooted out of Afghanistan (Cheney, 2011).

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Bush publicly voiced the revival of the Iraq question in his January 29, 2002, State of the Union address. With Hamid Karzai, interim leader of the U.S.-backed Afghan government present at the address as a guest, President Bush pivoted from the first phase of his administration’s response to non-state, terrorist actors and the states that sheltered them. Widely remembered as the “Axis of Evil” speech, it represented a rhetorical expansion of the war on terror from the parties immediately responsible for the September 11 attacks to states with no direct connection but with evidence of continuing ambitions to develop weapons of mass destruction. Lauding Karzai in Afghanistan and Musharraf in Pakistan, Bush made only oblique references to bin-Laden and al-Qaeda before signaling his focus on rogue states that he articulated as the axis of North Korea, Iran and Iraq. Of the three, Iraq received the most attention in the speech, Hussein’s regime being the one that had demonstrated its use of such weapons in the past. Bush declared, scarcely four months after his last address to a joint session of Congress, “By seeking weapons of mass destruction, these regimes pose a grave and growing danger.” Promising to work with U.S. allies, he asserted “yet time is not on our side. I will not wait on events, while danger gathers. I will not stand by, as peril draws closer … Our war on terror is well begun, but it is only begun” (Bush, 2002a).2 He articulated the American response as expanding to preempt states which might deliver weapons to non-state actors, and thereby openly revived the administration’s agenda on Iraq.

If the January 2002 State of the Union marked the public acknowledgment that Iraq was a potential point of conflict in the war on terror, the actions behind the scenes were already well advanced. Bob Woodward opens his book on the Bush administration’s invasion of Iraq with a vignette of a November 21, 2001 exchange between the president and Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld (Woodward, 2004). Bush (2010: 234) notes the conversation in his memoir as a request to Rumsfeld to review battle plans for Iraq in order to “develop the coercive half of coercive diplomacy.” Rumsfeld followed up by approaching U.S. Central Command’s General Tommy Franks for an assessment of the planned strategies, keenly aware that the administration had been burdened with outdated information when it needed to plan for Afghanistan. One of Rumsfeld’s missions since taking his position in the administration had been to review and revise “off the shelf” plans for military operations (Woodward, 2004). By the end of December 2001, Bush received a briefing from Franks on the rough outlines of an invasion of Iraq (Bush, 2010). In early January, Vice President Cheney requested a briefing from the CIA’s Iraq Operations Group on the state of their planning for destabilizing and toppling the Hussein regime, while his aide, Scooter Libby, pursued State Department support for reaching out to anti-Hussein exiles that might be brought in to help govern a new Iraqi state (Mazarr, 2019). Far from the State of the Union’s reference to Iraq representing a warning shot across the bow of a recalcitrant and uncooperative Saddam Hussein, it indicated a policy momentum that was already building in the Bush administration. From at least December 2001, the leading members of the administration had already begun to shift attention from what appeared to be a stabilizing conflict in Afghanistan to the renewal of a conflict with Iraq.

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It is relatively easy to plot the process for the Bush administration’s decision to go to war in Afghanistan by examining the dynamics in a handful of meetings – the process leading to the invasion of Iraq requires a different approach. To be sure particular landmarks signaled steps in the process, but the span of time and the scope of participants mean that in addition to documenting the public statements and private meetings that shaped policy, it is important to examine the dynamics of the relationships between agencies and individuals. While none of the members of the Bush foreign policy team could be described as particularly dovish nor as advocates for the Hussein regime, the decision to invade Iraq placed several at odds with each other. The rift between the Departments of State and Defense, with Secretary Colin Powell and Deputy Secretary Richard Armitage questioning the case for immediate intervention and Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and his Deputy Secretary Paul Wolfowitz making the case for action, is well established. Vice President Cheney’s deferral of the question of Iraq mooted by Wolfowitz at the September 15, 2001, Camp David session, might have seemed to demonstrate ambivalence to pursuing direct action against Hussein, though Cheney’s own subsequent statements and actions show no such reluctance, only a sense of priorities. At that same meeting, the closing of ranks by APNSA Condoleezza Rice and Chief of Staff Andrew Card in insisting that the main voices at that table be the principals (and thereby benching Wolfowitz) appeared at the time a rebuke of the proposal. Instead, they both became voices in support of intervention in Iraq and their actions in retrospect appear to be efforts to firm up the communication channels and gates within the advisory structure and assert the hierarchical structure for access to the president. For Secretary of State Powell, his position on military intervention in Iraq hinged upon evidence that Saddam Hussein was actively violating UN sanctions and presented a grave enough threat to compel international support.

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In his analysis of the Bush war cabinet, James Mann (2004) notes that in the Reagan administration, where many of the key Bush appointees had either cut their teeth or stepped up to leadership roles, Powell and Armitage had been considered hawks. Neither questioned the brutality of the Iraqi regime nor the preference for removing Hussein from power, but they understood their primary responsibility as building and maintaining a coalition of allies first and foremost in the war in Afghanistan and then as part of the broader war on terror as articulated by the Bush administration.3 In that sense, Powell’s position was mediated by his roles leading the State Department and as the embodiment of American foreign relations. This responsibility, to cultivate and maintain international support (or at least acquiescence) in the face of muscular U.S. interventions, placed the former Army general in the position of arguing against the more strident voices in Bush’s policy team. It also served to build Powell’s credibility among his international counterparts and American politicians as an honest broker, measured in response and unlikely to be swayed by incomplete evidence. This, compounded with the reputation that he had built with the American public as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and a face of the George H.W. Bush administration’s interventions in Panama and the Gulf War, meant that he appeared an experienced, stabilizing influence in the relatively inexperienced George W. Bush’s advisory circle. That Powell had the stomach to support the use of military force was established fact. The need to justify it beyond expediency or completion of long-standing U.S. objectives grew out of his role as chief diplomat.

If Bush himself was inexperienced in foreign policy, his advisors could point to extensive resumes often channeled through the first Bush’s presidency and continuing back to Reagan, Ford, or Nixon. APNSA Rice clearly counted the least time in public service of the principals, but her prior appointments to the senior Bush’s NSC in the early 1990s, and as an assistant to the Director of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in Reagan’s second term, complimented the personal rapport she had been building with George W. Bush since September 11, 2001. Rumsfeld and Cheney displayed much deeper institutional histories, holding multiple positions across the Nixon through Bush administrations, intersecting as both Secretaries of Defense and Chiefs of Staff to the President. Deputies such as Paul Wolfowitz, Scooter Libby, and Richard Armitage served previous administrations in both Departments of State and Defense, and proved more than simple proxies for Rumsfeld, Cheney and Powell, with each advocating positions at points of policy discussion. George W. Bush leveraged the credentials of this experienced advisory team to give weight to his foreign policy moves, especially after the September 11 attacks clad him in the mantle of a wartime president and lent urgency to his claim on expanded executive authority (Howell and Kriner, 2007).4 However it’s not clear that his policy decisions were shaped by the advice of the NSC, so much as validated by the group. Michael Mazarr (2019) describes a process of frequent meetings at levels ranging from deputies to the cabinet that seemed to take as a given that the administration would act to unseat Saddam Hussein. Their tasks appeared to be to build the justifications and prepare for the operation, not to inform policy decisions.

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The will to topple Hussein had always been present in members of the administration, but the momentum to make it happen grew through 2002. In an April 4, 2002 interview with British journalist Trevor McDonald, Bush declared “I made up my mind that Saddam needs to go … the policy of my government is that he goes” (Bush cited in United States Government Publishing Office, 2002: 573).5 From May through July, Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld and CENTCOM Commander General Tommy Franks went through several revisions of plans for the invasion of Iraq (Woodward, 2004). On August 5, General Franks briefed the NSC on a proposal to accelerate deployment of troops to Iraq and received approval to develop a plan that would allow the administration to mask the buildup to invasion. That same day Secretary of State Powell dined with Bush and APNSA Rice. Powell made his appeal to continue pursuing diplomatic channels and not military intervention as the set course of action. As Bush later recounted to Bob Woodward (2004: 153) of the discussion, “Colin felt very strongly that the United Nations was the route to go. And some in the administration had seen how feckless the United Nations had been.” The opponents to the diplomatic approach had won by this point, and the movement toward war continued to pick up pace. In August, Frank Miller, Special Assistant to the President out of the National Security Council was appointed to lead the Executive Steering Group (ESG). The ESG coordinated oversight of the agencies planning for the invasion and the occupation, reporting initially to the Deputies Committee and providing an additional conduit for Chief of Staff Andrew Card and APNSA Rice.

In September of 2002, the administration’s messages to the public made reference to a clear role for the United Nations, but hardened the language around U.S. resolve to act, including unilaterally. On September 12, before the General Assembly of the United Nations, President Bush dedicated nearly the entirety of his speech to a rationale for action against Iraq, citing the risk of it supporting terrorism, human rights violations against its own people, and consistent flaunting of UN resolutions. He declared “If Iraq’s regime defies us again, the world must move deliberately, decisively to hold Iraq to account … the purposes of the United States should not be doubted. The Security Council resolutions will be enforced … or action will be unavoidable” (Bush, 2002b). In retrospect, this speech reads as an ultimatum, though it focused on cooperation with the United Nations. Five days later, the White House released the National Security Strategy, explicitly embracing the doctrine of preemption in dealing with threats from “rogue states and their terrorist clients” (The White House, 2002: 14). While the subsequent paragraphs outlined non-proliferation efforts to limit the development of weapons of mass destruction, they were followed by a clear argument for how possession of such weapons could justify a pre-emptive U.S. military response to prevent their use. That section of the National Security Strategy concluded with the assurance “The purpose of our actions will always be to eliminate a specific threat to the United States or our allies and friends. The reasons for our actions will be clear, the force measured, and the cause just” (Idem: 16).

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Observers inclined to support the U.S. might attribute a hardening of rhetoric as a means to give leverage for negotiation. If the view from the outside of the administration was intended to signal diplomacy guiding measured progress toward confrontation with a recalcitrant Saddam Hussein, the view from the inside showed much less deliberation. All parties within agreed that Hussein remained an impediment to U.S. policy in the region. Nobody, including a reluctant Secretary of State Powell disputed that Hussein was a tyrant, acting viciously against both countrymen and foreign opponents. His isolation and removal from power had been the aim of sanctions since the end of the Gulf War, and nobody in the George W. Bush administration envisioned a scenario in which Hussein might actively cooperate with international mandates. What Powell and a very few other voices in the administration continued to question was the urgency of acting while the United States remained at war in Afghanistan. Powell’s statement of “you break it, you own it” from his dinner with Bush and Rice predicted the power vacuum that emerged with the removal of a brutal tyrant who sustained his regime through fear and violence, and Powell maintained his concern about the inability to form a coalition the likes of which supported the Afghanistan invasion.6 Short of proving links between Hussein and al-Qaeda, which even at the time were dismissed as implausible and untenable, or casting an Iraqi weapons stockpile as a threat liable to end up in the hands of terrorists, there could be little justification to act that would garner much international support. Yet the determination to act had already been made by at least 2002, even on the basis of questionable intelligence, and the move toward war was accelerating before the end of that year.

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As planning for war advanced, it became increasingly confined to agency silos. The National Security Council remained the venue for high-level discussion, but nobody questioned that Bush, Cheney and Rumsfeld had long before committed to action (Mazarr, 2019). Where Bush held himself apart from the details, and the Executive Steering Group under the NSC’s Frank Miller might normally be expected to inform the discussions of the principals, instead the momentum shifted to the Department of Defense. In essence, the policy question of whether the U.S. should intervene to overthrow Saddam Hussein had been elided and replaced by the process of planning the war and subsequent occupation. As Michael Mazarr (2019: 184) notes in Leap of Faith, interviewees present through the administration’s deliberation perceived “the president, vice president, secretary of defense, a handful of people outside the context of a traditional decision process” making decisions outside of NSC meetings. One noted that “Defense seemed to be vacuuming up all authority,” and another stated “there was never a time’ when the principals ‘sat around the NSC table and everyone was asked for their views” about invading Iraq (Mazarr, 2019: 184). Instead, Defense led by Rumsfeld and Franks worked to devise a concrete plan for invasion. Meanwhile an offshoot of the ESG, known as the Iraq Relief and Reconstruction Working Group, attempted to coordinate with Defense and plan for the post-invasion occupation, and the CIA worked to marshal intelligence. All operated under very limited coordination from the NSC, with APNSA Rice largely marginalized by the weight of action shifting to the Department of Defense. With the gears turning in the executive branch, the next moves took place in broader arenas.

On October 16, President Bush signed the congressional use-of-force resolution, overwhelming passed by both chambers and authorizing the president to pursue military action if Saddam Hussein did not comply with all United Nations resolutions. Congress had essentially validated the months of preparation the administration had already pursued and vacated its authority under the War Powers Resolution. President Bush had a virtual blank check to act, if his administration could demonstrate that Iraq continued to pose a threat and continued to thwart the United Nations’ inspectors. Parallel to this, through the month of October and extending into November of 2002, the United States presented several draft resolutions to the UN Security Council with the express purpose of backing Hussein into a corner. As Bush (2010: 241) put it in his memoir, “the burden of proof rested with Saddam. The Inspectors did not have to prove that he had weapons. He had to prove that he did not.” UN Security Council Resolution 1441 passed unanimously on November 8, giving Saddam Hussein thirty days to provide the accounting of all WMD-related programs. That deadline passed on December 7, and while the reams of documentation were duly presented, they provided no evidence of extant programs and little of any substance. As the chief UN weapons inspector, Hans Blix, described it, the report proved “rich in volume but poor in information” (Idem: 242). Justification for action effectively established through both the United Nations and the U.S. Congress, the Bush administration now needed to make the case that the government of Iraq had intentionally concealed weapons programs.

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In early December, the CIA was called on to brief Bush, Rice and Rumsfeld on Iraq intelligence and the evidence supporting the rationale for invasion. In preparation, Deputy Director John McLaughlin met with the Agency’s analytical team charged with evaluating the intelligence on Iraq. In later accounts he expressed dismay at the lack of incontrovertible evidence for weapons of mass destruction, finding them unable to furnish a smoking gun or “slam-dunk evidence for WMD” (Draper, 2020). In a truly deliberative policy formulation process, that would have been a fundamental impediment to deciding upon military action. In this case it proved barely an inconvenience, and the CIA analysts worked to provide rationale to support the administration’s desired outcome.7 When McLaughlin did present to the president, vice president and APNSA Rice on December 21, 2002, they too identified the evidence as weak despite the CIA team’s efforts to make the case. Rather than putting the brakes on the building momentum for military action, President Bush declared “in about five weeks I may have to ask the fathers and mothers of America to send their sons and daughters off to war … it needs to be more convincing … and it needs to tie all this into terrorism, for the domestic audience” (Draper, 2020). The timeline the president identified roughly corresponded with Powell’s as yet unscheduled presentation to the UN Security Council. CIA Director Tenet responded that the evidence would be “a slam dunk” (Bush, 2010: 242).

By January of 2003, the work of the administration to place the final contours on their Iraq planning began to fall into place. In the first two weeks of the new year, Bush separately took aside the two key figures on his advisory team who had expressed caution at points in the previous year, Rice and Powell, and explicitly told them he believed it necessary to go to war. In both cases they pledged their support (Mazzar, 2019). In a substantive way, this marked the end of the policy deliberation process, though the public-facing campaign and the implementation processes continued. Rumsfeld and Defense Undersecretary for Policy, Douglas Feith, lobbied for and received authorization to transfer the oversight for post-invasion Iraq to the Department of Defense. On January 20, National Security Presidential Directive-24 (NSPD-24) established the Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance and four days later General Franks would deliver to Rumsfeld the final version of the plan for the invasion itself (Woodward, 2004). While NSPD-24 created an inter-agency planning office in the ORHA, explicitly tapping ten agencies within the executive branch ranging from the State Department and Treasury to USAID and the Office of Management and Budget, the Department of Defense would coordinate and lead both the invasion and the peace to follow it (The White House, 2003). Rumsfeld and Feith chose retired General Jay Garner to take charge, and with that the ESG and State Department were not able to direct postwar planning, either (Woodward, 2004).8 Though Secretary of State Powell found himself increasingly on the margins of influencing Iraq policy in the winter of 2002–2003, he would have one more important role to play.

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The most iconic moment of the Bush administration reaching out to gain international support for an invasion of Iraq to topple Saddam Hussein came in early February of 2003. Few doubted that Iraq continued to frustrate United Nations efforts to inspect and document weapons facilities through the work of UNMOVIC under Hans Blix and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) under Mohamed ElBaradei. The Bush administration argued the incomplete compliance to be a violation of Resolution 1441, and while resistance to the inspection regimen was not a new development, by February the resolution had been in effect for three months. During that time the administration worked to strengthen its evidence for Hussein’s clandestine weapons program while honing its military response. In the resolution, the Security Council not only set the thirty-day timeline for compliance by the Iraqi government, but it pointedly stated that “the Council has repeatedly warned Iraq that it will face serious consequences as a result of its continued violations of its obligations” (United Nations Security Council, 2002). The deadline for the weapons inspectors’ final report was looming later in February, and it served the Bush administration’s Iraq interests to present the international community and the media an accounting of evidence that the resolution had not been met, especially after French Foreign Minister de Villepin asserted on January 20, 2003 that nothing could justify war (Woodward, 2004). On January 28, Bush (2003) gave a fiery State of the Union Address that articulated his administration’s case against Saddam Hussein in principle, declaring “The United States will ask the UN Security Council to convene on February the 5th… we will consult. But let there be no misunderstanding: if Saddam Hussein does not fully disarm … we will lead a coalition to disarm him.” The objective established; it fell to the Secretary of State to provide the evidence.

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Powell’s speech to the United Nations Security Council on February 5, 2003, lent credibility to the argument that Saddam Hussein presented a compelling danger to the international community with the prospect that weapons of mass destruction find their way to terrorists. At least, those willing to consider such an argument found his speech influential, as several times he returned to the motif that “these are not assertions. They are facts, corroborated by many sources” (Powell, 2003). His ability to point to internationally sourced evidence broadened the argument for United Nations sanction of action to remove Hussein, despite the fact that key pieces of evidence were questioned at the time and have since been demonstrated false or unreliable. Powell himself had spent the weeks after Bush informed him of the decision to go to war, sifting through the intelligence and analysis, discarding the weakest elements, and preparing to make the case to the United Nations. As far as the public was concerned, this moment was the hinge upon which the final decision to go to war in Iraq to remove Saddam Hussein turned. Powell has since expressed his chagrin at the role he played in making the case for the invasion of Iraq – a position made all the more ironic considering that in the lead-up to that speech he had been one of the few voices within the administration to argue against invasion, using the expression “If you break it, you own it” to sum up the need to exercise caution (Draper, 2020). Powell, professional soldier, now diplomat, clung to the hope that the intelligence genuinely justified the course of action that was already in motion before he stood in the Security Council chamber, before Bush’s March 17 ultimatum to Saddam Hussein, and before the March 20, 2003 invasion.

Ultimately, the decision-making process for the invasion of Iraq differed from the process on Afghanistan in that it was less formal, more diffuse, involved far greater numbers of participants, and was slower to develop. Rather than coalescing over the course of days, it developed over the course of more than a year and culminated with the administration articulating a case for action to the international community which had already “built a box” around Saddam Hussein over the preceding decade (Idem). Subsequent analysis and the observations of participants, both among the principals and their subordinates, indicate that the final outcome of the process was no less in question than the decision to authorize a massive military operation against al-Qaeda and the Taliban. This was a decision already made by key administration figures, pithily summed-up by President Bush himself when he dropped in on a meeting between APNSA Rice and a handful of senators. She appraised them of plans to build international support to increase pressure on Hussein, a year before the invasion, in March of 2002. The president lingered long enough to catch the drift of the conversation and declare “Fuck Saddam. We’re taking him out” (Bush cited in Elliott and Carney, 2003).


1 Woodward (2004) cites several meetings of the deputies committee (most significantly in this case centered around Hadley, APNSA; Armitage, Department of State; and Wolfowitz, Department of Defense) through the summer of 2001 and culminating in an August 1 report to the principals group outlining a strategy to pressure and topple the Hussein government. Richard Clarke (2004: 264) also notes “Wolfowitz had urged a focus on Iraqi-sponsored terrorism against the U.S. even though there was no such thing.” Prior to the September 11 attacks, the focus of planning in the broader Middle East remained Iraq and its immediate neighbors, as had been the case ever since the Gulf War a decade earlier.

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2 The omission of Osama bin-Laden and the near-omission of al-Qaeda (mentioned only in the context of shoe bomber Richard Reid) is telling when considered alongside the reported debate over whether Bush should name bin-Laden in his September 20, 2002, address to the joint session of Congress. Then, Bush opted to run the risk of elevating the name of an enemy, where in the State of the Union he appeared to be downplaying bin-Laden’s evasion of U.S. forces.

3 In that sense of the importance of coalition, they differed from the emerging policy direction of the Bush administration that bordered on unilateralism and the support of a “coalition of the willing” as described in Daalder and Lindsay (2005). Bob Woodward (2004) notes that President Bush declared to Powell during the Camp David meetings after September 11 that he would be willing to go to war even if no allies supported the U.S.

4 See Howell and Kriner (2007) for an analysis of the Bush approach to expanding executive powers in the context of unilateral (or largely unilateral) military interventions.

5 The interview, carried on Britain’s ITV in anticipation of an impending meeting between Bush and Prime Minister Blair, referenced the weapons of mass destruction rationale and Hussein’s obstruction of UN inspections, though Bush insisted “I have no plans to attack on my desk.” As Bob Woodward (2004: 120) describes in Plan of Attack, that statement was probably factually accurate only insofar as General Franks was still in the process of developing plans at the president’s request.

6 Bob Woodward (2002: 88) reported that in the immediate aftermath of the September 11 attacks, Powell asserted that an attack on Iraq when the stated enemy was al-Qaeda would cause the collapse of the international coalition, to which Rumsfeld responded that would argue the need for a different coalition.

7 In the New York Times Magazine piece, Draper (2020) notes that a CIA official involved with analyzing the intelligence affirmed “We were all infected in the case for war.”

8 Woodward (2004) describes the ensuing conflict between Rumsfeld and Powell as the latter proposed State Department staff who could support the work of OHRA and the former rejected them, insisting on true believers that had not registered concern with regime change.


Bush, George. 2002a, January 29. President Delivers State of the Union Address. Available at https://georgewbush-whitehouse.archives.gov/news/releases/2002/01/20020129-11.html (June 12, 2020).Bush, George. 2002b, September 12. President’s Remarks at the United Nations General Assembly. Available at https://georgewbush-whitehouse.archives.gov/news/releases/2002/09/20020912-1.html (June 13, 2020).

Bush, George. 2003, January 28. President Delivers “State of the Union.” Available at https://georgewbush-whitehouse.archives.gov/news/releases/2003/01/20030128-19.html (June 14, 2020).

Bush, George. 2010. Decision Points. New York. Broadway Paperbacks.Cheyney, Dick. 2011. In My Time: A Personal and Political Memoir. New York, NY: Threshold Editions.

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Clarke, Richard. 2004. Against All Enemies: Inside America’s War on Terror. New York, NY: Free Press.

Daalder, Ivo, and James Lindsay. 2005. America Unbound: The Bush Revolution in Foreign Policy. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons.

Draper, Robert. 2020, July 17. “Colin Powell Still Wants Answers.” The New York Times Magazine. Available at https://www.nytimes.com/2020/07/16/magazine/colin-powell-iraq-war.html (July 24, 2020).

Elliott, Michael, and James Carney. 2003, March 24. “First Stop, Iraq.” CNN International. Available at https://edition.cnn.com/2003/ALLPOLITICS/03/24/timep.saddam.tm/ (June 27, 2020).

Howell, William, and Douglas Kriner. 2007. “Bending so as Not to Break: What the Bush Presidency Reveals about the Politics of Unilateral Action.” In The Polarized Presidency of George W. Bush, edited by George Edwards III and Desmond King, 96–141. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

Mann, James. 2004. Rise of the Vulcans: The History of Bush’s War Cabinet. New York, NY: Penguin.

Mazarr, Michael. 2019. Leap of Faith: Hubris, Negligence, and America’s Greatest Foreign Policy Tragedy. New York, NY: PublicAffairs.

Powell, Colin. 2003, February 5. Remarks to the United Nations Security Council. Available at https://2001-2009.state.gov/secretary/former/powell/remarks/2003/17300.htm (June 27, 2020).

The White House. 2002. The National Security Strategy of the United States of America. Available at https://2009-2017.state.gov/documents/organization/63562.pdf (June 16, 2020).

The White House. 2003, January 20. National Security Presidential Directive 24. Available at https://fas.org/irp/offdocs/nspd/nspd-24.pdf (June 15, 2020).United Nations Security Council. 2002. Resolution 1441. Available at https://www.un.org/Depts/unmovic/documents/1441.pdf (June 16, 2020).

United States Government Publishing Office. 2002. Weekly Compilation of Presidential Documents. Volume 38, Number 15. Available at https://www.govinfo.gov/content/pkg/WCPD-200204-15/pdf/WCPD-2002-04-15.pdf (June 24, 2020).

Woodward, Bob. 2002. Bush at War. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster.

Woodward, Bob. 2004. Plan of Attack: The Definitive Account of the Decision to Invade Iraq. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster.

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Going “All In”: Pushing
the Surge in Iraq

As the Bush administration prepared for military action against Iraq, confidence firmly took hold amongst the many inveterate supporters of the war. For many of these advocates, the U.S. military intervention in Iraq was not only necessary, but it was also seen as justified (see Gerecht, 2002; Krauthammer, 2002; Kagan and Kristol, 2002; The Guardian, 2003). The anticipated benefits accruing to the U.S. and to the U.S.-led international order, in their belief, far outweighed any adverse potential risks. In fact, in a Washington Post op-ed prior to the outbreak of the war, the former-Pentagon official, Ken Adelman (2002), loftily claimed that “demolishing Hussein’s military power and liberating Iraq would be a cakewalk.” This hubris was bolstered by the seemingly expeditious U.S. military defeat of Saddam Hussein’s regime. A mere three weeks elapsed between President Bush’s announcement of the commencement of military operations in Iraq (March 19, 2003) and the moment that American troops arrived unimpeded in Baghdad to the fanfare of rejoicing crowds (April 9, 2003). The following day, Adelman (2003) again took pen to paper and boastfully excoriated the naysayers: “Administration critics should feel shock over their bellyaching about the wayward war plan.”

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This euphoric sentiment of triumph was confirmed when, on May 1, aboard the aircraft carrier Abraham Lincoln, President Bush declared that “major combat operations in Iraq have ended,” adding that “in the battle of Iraq, the United States and our allies have prevailed” (cited in Sanger, 2003). The swift and unequivocal military defeat of Saddam Hussein’s regime led leaders in the Pentagon to believe that by late-summer, the initial invasion force of 150,000 U.S. troops could be reduced to only 25,000–30,000 troops (Brands, 2014). Accordingly, the administration now set its attention to recreating Iraq in the image of a modern liberal democracy (da Vinha, 2010). However, the administration promptly ran into a morass in trying to implement its ambitious agenda of political transformation. Reconstruction efforts quickly faltered as the collapse of law and order led to widespread looting across the country, revealing the lack of foresight in postwar planning. The situation further deteriorated after the administration placed the occupation of Iraq under the direction of the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA), headed by Paul Bremer III. On 16 May, the CPA’s first official decree outlawed the Ba’ath Party, thereby crippling any attempt to restore a functioning public bureaucracy in Iraq.1 The following week, the CPA issued a second decree dissolving the Iraqi army and other security organizations, which placed 400,000 trained military personnel out of work and without any foreseeable alternatives to provide for their livelihood (Bensahel, 2006).2

The situation in Iraq quickly spiraled into a cycle of violence as an increasing number of Sunnis felt humiliated by the occupation and became disenfranchised from the traditional institutions of power. Many of them took up arms against the US-led coalition, joining groups such as the Saddam Fedayeen in trying to disrupt the reconstruction efforts. More radical groups, such as the jihadists led by the al-Qaeda leader in Iraq, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, also targeted coalition forces and local populations in an attempt to sow chaos in country (Freedman, 2009). In fact, in a press conference on July 16, 2003, CENTCOM commander, General John Abizaid, was categorical in classifying the situation in Iraq: “I believe there’s mid-level Ba’athist, Iraqi intelligence service people, Special Security Organization people, Special Republican Guard people that have organized at the regional level in cellular structure and are conducting what I would describe as a classical guerrilla-type campaign against us” (cited in C-SPAN, 2003).

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The precariousness of the situation was accentuated in mid-August 2003 by the attack carried out against the United Nations compound in Baghdad. The attack killed 22 people, including the top United Nations envoy in Iraq, Sergio Vieira de Mello, and wounded over 100 others (Filkins and Oppel Jr., 2003). A few days later, another attack targeted the Imam Ali Mosque in Najaf, killing more than 125 people and injuring over 140 others (Wedeman, 2003). Among the casualties was the spiritual leader of the Supreme Council of the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, the Ayatollah Mohammad Baqir al-Hakim. Al-Hakim was considered an important element of stability, helping to maintain the Shiite community’s support of the American effort in Iraq, and his killing alarmed Shiites across the country (MacFarquhar and Oppel Jr., 2003).

Attempts to stem the violence failed as the insurgency gained intensity throughout Iraq and tested the American military’s capability to manage the situation. Ultimately, as Dodge (2007: 88) noted, “Faced with widespread lawlessness that is common after violent regime change, the United States did not have the number of troops to control the situation.” As a result, from the day that Bush announced the end of major combat operations in Iraq (May 1, 2003), until the end of the year, over 4,700 Iraqi civilians died from the violence.3 During the same period, over 400 of the coalition forces were also killed, the majority of whom were American. Thus, the total of American casualties since the start of the war rose close to 1,000.4

The new year witnessed an intensification of the fighting in Iraq as the insurgency gained strength (Shanker, 2004). U.S. forces began the year attempting to deal with the Mahdi Army, a militia led by the Shia cleric Moqtada al-Sadr as confrontations broke out and violence escalated in the south. The U.S.’ muscled approach to Sadr and his militia ultimately undermined moderate Shi’ite support for the U.S. mission (Freedman, 2009). Shortly afterwards, U.S. forces were involved in intense combat against Sunni insurgents in the city of Fallujah. Again, coalition forces were seen as using disproportionate force in trying to dislodge the insurgents and further alienated the more moderate parties in Iraq. According to Lawrence Freedman (2009: 441), “the battle [of Fallujah] soon started to turn into a propaganda disaster for the coalition, even forging links between Sunni insurgents and the Mahdi Army.”

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Meanwhile, the deterioration of the political situation in Iraq encouraged the Bush administration to search for a swift exit strategy from the country. Contrary to Bremer’s opposition, officials in Washington advocated for a rapid transfer of sovereignty to the recently nominated Iraqi Governing Council, along with the assignment of enlarged security responsibilities to newly created Iraqi forces. In fact, the administration pushed for a transfer of sovereignty as soon as possible, and with the mediation of the UN special envoy Lakhdar Brahimi, promoted several rounds of negotiations with the various local leaders in an attempt to reach a compromise. The immediate aim was that an interim government would be nominated and take office in June and prepare for the election of a transitional government no later than January 2005 (da Vinha, 2010). Notwithstanding the growing violence, on June 29, 2004, in a small ceremony in Baghdad’s Green Zone, the CPA was dissolved and Bremer returned formal sovereignty of Iraq to the President of the Governing Council of Iraq, Ayad Allawi. A few hours later, Ambassador John Negroponte officially re-established American diplomatic relations with Iraq for the first time since 1990 (Filkins, 2004).

Negroponte, who volunteered for the ambassadorship in Baghdad, was joined by General George Casey Jr. in trying to manage America’s future mission in Iraq. General Casey was appointed as the Commanding General of the newly established Multi-National Force – Iraq (MNF-I). Sensing a lack of guidance from Washington, both men sought to mutually define America’s overarching objectives in Iraq and how best to achieve them. Both agreed that the ultimate goal was to help “facilitate the establishment of a representative Iraqi government that respected the human rights of all Iraqis, and that had sufficient security forces to maintain domestic order and deny Iraq as a safe haven for terrorists” (Casey Jr., 2012: 11). However, while the goals were straightforward, achieving them was another issue, and the competing views prevalent in Washington hindered the development of a cohesive strategy. Therefore, the lack of centralized control over the Iraq policy in Washington placed greater responsibility on those on the ground in Baghdad (Woodward, 2008a). Ultimately, after extensive consultations and the development of several red team exercises, Casey and Negroponte sought to achieve the aforementioned goals by implementing a strategy that in the coming 18 months would allow the U.S. to help the Iraqis establish functioning governing institutions and aid in the transfer of security responsibilities to the government (Casey Jr., 2012).


XII, 310
ISBN (Book)
Publication date
2021 (April)
New York, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Oxford, Wien, 2021. XII, 310 pp., 3 b/w ill., 4 tables.

Biographical notes

Luis da Vinha (Author) Anthony Dutton (Author)

Luis da Vinha is Lecturer in International Relations at Flinders University. He received his Ph.D. in international relations from the University of Coimbra. His research has been published in Presidential Studies Quarterly , Journal of Policy History , Portuguese Journal of Political Science , and the Brown Journal of World Affairs , among others. Anthony Dutton is Professor of History and Chair of the Social Science Department at Valley City State University. He earned his Ph.D. in North American history from North Dakota State University.


Title: Three Approaches to Presidential Foreign Policy-Making in the Twenty-First Century