Monday, May 18, 2015

A Thought on Decision Making in White House Crisis Situations

Michael Bohn recently did a TV book discussion on his new book, Presidents in Crisis: Tough Decisions inside the White House from Truman to Obama. Bohm was the naval officer (i.e. non-political) man in charge of the White House situation room during the Reagan administration. He writes about crisis, in the sense that there arise suddenly, and the president has to decide if the U.S. is to respond, and if so, how. Bohm notes that the decision as to whether to hold meetings to discuss the president's decision in the Oval Office (or presumably the Cabinet Room) or the Situation Room is usually a political one, meant to give a message to the press and the public. Bohn, because of his position running the situation room, got great access to people who participated in 17 discussions treated in the book (including some presidents).

He made a couple of general points that we should all recognize. First, unless you have been there, you have no idea how hard it is to make decisions like how to respond to an invasion by or on an ally. People not actually involved don't know all the ramifications and don't have all of the date, and don't have the responsibility. The party in opposition to the president will have spokespersons trying to make political points when such a situation occurs, but Bohn would not pay attention to their comments. He noted that Reagan, while running for president said he would be bold and active in such decision making, while as president he was at his best when slow and cautious.

Secondly, Bohn said that domestic politics always counted in the 17 decisions he studied (and they counted more in election years). In the last year of President Johnson' term, since he was not running for another term, they counted less.

Bohn notes that there seems always to be a significant lack of information in such crisis decision making ("fog of war"). He strongly recommended incremental decision making -- one small step at a time, allowing the president to step back if necessary. In the time between incremental decisions, new information may become available and new options may develop. He also recommended that serious efforts be made to avoid "group think" by assuring that people with different positions are at the table; I assume that early on, when there is little information and few options, the president might seek people with different general viewpoints (e.g. hawks vs. doves, local expertise vs. general foreign policy overview).

Of course, in foreign policy crises, there are not only domestic viewpoints to be taken into account, but also foreign ones. Consider for example the current situation involving ISIL, Syria and Iraq. There are of course different parties in Syria and Iraq, with different interests, and I suppose different parties within ISIL. Then there are the many neighboring states that feel that they may have important interests in the conflict. Then there are our European and Asian allies and Russia. If one considers the United Nations, the 193 member states may all vote on General Assembly resolutions, and each of them may have different parties with distinct views, even if the member state seems far away and little affected by a war in the Levant.

It occurs to me that there might be a some relevance to chess or other games of strategy. In chess, the game is too complicated for even a computer to calculate all alternative sets of possible moves to chose the best one at each point. Muddling through (see Charles Lindblom's classic "The Science of Muddling Through") involves the strategy advocated by Bohn -- making one move at a time and waiting to see what happens and what others do before committing to the next move. It is the classic approach in chess. Still, a good chess player, when he/she opens the game first, chooses a gambit; his/her opponent will normally recognize the gambit and select an appropriate response gambit. Thus good chess players depend on their experience with the game to have opening moves that hold little surprise for their opponents, but that lead toward known positions that are strong for the middle game. Decision making in crisis situations might well lend themselves to such series of initial moves at least between countries that frequently face each other in such situations.

An important part of crisis decision making is simplifying the situation in such a way that its important aspects are maintained, superfluous issues are ignored, and it becomes possible to move ahead reasonably expeditiously. Doing this well seems very hard to me, yet  it seems to be a critical skill. Thinking of chess again, expert players have developed intuition, based on experience, that allows them to focus on a few alternatives at each step to analyze in depth; they know when to rely on memorized alternatives, when shallow analysis is adequate and they can save time and effort and when to take the time and put in the effort to analyze in depth before making the next move. That intuition is I think based on replying many games by experts, reading analyses by experts of influential games and matches, and playing a lot.

Good decision makers also delegate a lot of the decisions. Thus the political leaders of the Allies in World War II made the policy decisions, but delegated the responsibilities of figuring out how to carry out those policies to military and civilian mobilization leaders. These latter leaders in turn made the strategic decisions on how to implement the policies that they were given, but delegated tactical decisions to their subordinates.

I think, in a well run White House, decision makers fully utilize the structures of government to get information and have it screened and manicured to assist in their incremental decision making. Thus, the State Department has thousands of expert foreign service officers stationed around the world and a world class system to filter their reports and provide a regular synthesis to the Secretary of State and senior staff, who in turn provide that information to the National Security Council and the President. Similar systems exist in the Defense Department, the Department of Commerce, the Treasury Department and the rest of government, according to the charter of each agency.

Government decision making works well not only when the decision makers themselves are capable, but also requires effective agencies to carry out delegated tasks and effective agencies to evaluate results of decisions and obtain new information.

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