The Psycho-Sociology of Strategic Thought and Decision Making: Multi-Dimensional Analytical Models and the Decision to Invade Iraq: Iterations on a Theme. 2008

SOC 471       Contemporary Sociology       Dr. Niame Adele       Timothy Sipp           12/16/08

The Psycho-Sociology of Strategic Thought and Decision Making: Multi-Dimensional Analytical Models and the Decision to Invade Iraq: Iterations on a Theme.

Why did President George W. Bush decide to invade Iraq and how did he arrive at his decision? What was the nature of the discourse on policy and strategy within the Cabinet and the National Security Council? What theoretical models and analytical perspectives from political science, sociology and psychology informed this process and contributed to the decision to invade Iraq? Is there a coherent and definable structure for strategic thinking that is scalable from the individual level to the societal level? Can this structural understanding be applied to international relations and foreign policy?   

I will demonstrate that throughout the entire process of the determination to go to war that many dynamics came into play that cannot be explained by any one theoretical model or analytical perspective. I think that a hybridization of the spectrums of thought in theoretical modeling and the analytical perspectives across the disciplines of political science, sociology and psychoanalysis provides a more flexible and accurate rubric from which to perform this task. The political science perspectives discussed are: achieving the political objective through both the Realist and Liberal Internationalist lenses, and the decision making models of Allison and Zelikow. Understanding these complex socio-political dynamics with reference to the sociological theories that inform each model and perspective, as well as the parallels observed between the strategic political decision making process and the Freudian psychoanalytic structures of the Id, the Ego and the Super-Ego, allows us a greater degree of clarity and access to the policy and strategy decision making process.

A nuanced assessment of the numerous and varied disciplines involved in rendering policies and strategies in American government reveals dominant patterns that emerge across the theoretical models and analytical perspectives. This observed confluence of previously competing metrics and methods promotes a holistic, coherent, internally consistent and balanced approach to the successful realization of the multi-dimensional and non-linear nature of decision-making across multiple actors, agencies and organizations.

The political science perspective of Realism has two distinct variances: Offensive and Defensive. Offensive Realism is concerned with the international Balance of Power and proposes “Hard Power” or military might to protect our interests and provide security. Defensive Realism stipulates a Balance of Threat in international relations and insists on “Soft Power”, comprised of diplomacy and economic influence, as its primary tool. The ties that bind these two sub-genres of political philosophy are the zero-sum world, the pursuit of hegemony and that unitary, rational state actors are involved. Realism is informed by the economic and social psychological theory of Rational Choice as applied to both individuals and microsociological systems. This presumed rationality asserts that a nation acts as a single entity of one mind and that they will seek to maximize their assets and minimize their liabilities. The inference here is that capability is the key to action, not character. In essence, means provides motive in the absence of any other direction.

The political science perspective of Liberalism is based on the Kantian concept of the “republic” and its three tenets. First is that the peaceful, liberal nation should be a republic, meaning that the citizens have rights that the government respects and that the population consents to being governed. He did not necessarily mean a democratically elected government. Kant’s second condition for “peaceful nations” is that republics should have market economies that are focused on the well-being of the people. “Third, Kant argued that international peace would result from the expansion of a ‘pacific union’ among republics. This would begin with mutual respect and peaceful resolution of disputes among fellow republics. Thereafter, the pacific union would widen as other states observed the benefits republics enjoyed and sought to join.” (Allison and Zelikow: 1999. 36-39) Liberalism today translates as the desire to spread liberty, democracy, and prosperity around the world.

Now that we have introduced the political science perspectives of Realism and Liberalism, let’s investigate the theoretical models of political decision making and their sociological foundations. We will start with Allison and Zelikow’s decision making models for government. The Classical Model or Rational Actor Model also called Model I is informed by the sociological perspectives of Rational Choice and Functionalism. (Allison and Zelikow: 1999. 26-48) Model I asserts that governmental action is a choice made by a unitary national actor that is seeking to maximize its assets and minimize its liabilities. Model I also assumes that a state actor will not act against its own interests. In order to make determinations a Model I actor considers: goals and objectives, options, consequences and then chooses; the higher the perceived cost the less likely the action, conversely, the lower the perceived cost the more likely the action. (Allison and Zelikow: 1999. 391)

 The Organizational Behavior Model or Model II is informed by Social Constructionism and Functionalism. (Allison and Zelikow: 1999. 163-185) Model II sees governmental action as organizational output. In this model there are shared powers between intra-governmental agencies with different agendas that are in part determined by the need to maintain their particular institutions and their specific cultures. Each organization has its own mission, methodology, and repertoire that characterize their desire and ability to act in any given situation. Governmental action is thus shaped by existing organizational capabilities, organizational priorities, and organizational culture specific to each agency. These traits limit government action to reactionary, small, incremental changes as new policy must work with older implementations. For this model, administrative feasibility is a top priority and is paired with long-term planning for directed change. Unchecked, this model could lead a government towards imperialist tendencies. (Allison and Zelikow: 1999. 391)

Model III or the Governmental Politics Model suggests that governmental action is a political resultant of bargaining between various players with different goals and levels of power. These players’ actions are dependent on: their position in government, their personal goals and interests, their stakes or stand in a given situation, and looming deadlines. (Allison and Zelikow: 1999. 391)  Each action is a product of a game that is defined by the goal or objective, the available action-channels and the rules of the game. “An action channel is a regularized means of taking governmental action on a specific kind of issue.” (Allison and Zelikow: 1999. 300)  An action-channel that may lead to U.S. military intervention in another country has many constituents, but the president is the one that makes the decision based on input from his/her advisors. “Action-channels structure the game by pre-selecting the major players, determining their usual points of entrance into the game, and distributing particular advantages and disadvantages for each game.” (Allison and Zelikow: 1999. 301) In the foreign policy game, the president has the power to persuade his administration and the nation in pursuit of a political object that he/she determined to be of value.

I will use the multi-dimensional theoretical models presented by Allison and Zelikow to compliment the analytical frameworks of Realism and Liberalism to assess the policy and strategy debate in George W. Bush’s first administration. My assertion is that the onus for regime change was inherited from the Clinton administration due to the available action-channel that Clinton empowered with funds earmarked for Iraqi regime change.(Woodward: 2006. 10) This is consistent with Allison and Zelikow’s Model III of Governmental Politics and the Personified State in decision making. It is also, I argue a product of organizational behavior and therefore also addressed by Model II. However, the impetus for war with Iraq initiated with Dick Cheney after 9/11 and gained momentum as Cheney onboarded the President. This is also exemplary of Allison and Zelikow’s Model III theory of individual actors and the personified state. The president in turn set the military/intelligence machine in motion to discover his options for regime change in Iraq while maintaining perceptions of legitimacy on the world stage; this is exemplary of Allison and Zelikow’s RAM I theory of the Unitary, Rational State-Actor as a projection of a national “self” to be consumed by other rational state actors.

Allison and Zelikow offer us a theoretical model of assessing Realism, Liberalism and the decision making process in their book “Essence of Decision”.  The RAM I or Rational Actor Model I consists of rational state actors who are looking to maximize their assets and minimize their liabilities and will not exhibit counter-productive behaviors or act against their interests. At this basic level of assessment we can assume that the rational state actor has political objectives in the pursuit of maximizing their assets. These political objectives are the national interests of an actor, or the needs and desires of that national but singular entity. As a singular entity with needs and desires one can apply the well-known framework of Freudian psychoanalysis to this microsociological system and realize the parallels of the political objective, regardless of whether or not the objective is considered Realist or Liberal, to the Id and the projection of our collective will.

The cost benefit analyses commensurate with evaluating the political objective(s) are the next step of strategic consideration. This process involves an assessment of the political objective, the level of political will behind the policy, the military capabilities necessary to ensure successful completion of the political objective and the risks and costs, both in material and political collateral or prestige of pursuing the objective, ergo the parallel to the Ego. The pros and cons are weighed with statistical analyses of possibilities and probabilities. At this point in the discussion the nature and capabilities of the organizations involved comes into play. This reality brings us to Allison and Zelikow’s model of decision-making concerning organizational behavior. This model is informed by the sociological theories of Social Constructionism, Structural Functionalism and Rational Choice. The model stipulates that governmental action is a function of organizational output as affected by organizational culture, capabilities, limitations and Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs).

The Political Science perspective that best fits within this framework as a means to an end is Liberal Internationalism with it’s preference for working to achieve political objectives through robust international institutions that promote the liberal ideals of liberty, democracy and prosperity. However, my assertion is that any and all political objectives, Realist or Liberal, serve the purposes of preserving power for the state, and engendering amiable circumstances in the international arena to continue to assert their political will. Therefore, it doesn’t really matter if someone is a Realist or a Liberal, as all political objectives in a rational choice system seek to preserve the status quo indefinitely. This is where the “rubber hits the road” in policy and strategy. Either the political objective is perceived to be worthy of the risks or it is deemed unworthy or improbable and discarded. This assessment of desires and risks closely mirrors the functions of the Ego in Freudian psychoanalysis as the chief defensive measure balancing internal and external pressures.

The Super-Ego in this parallel is the directed reification of the abstract ideal as promoted by the chief persuader in the American foreign policy process, the president. In this parallel, the Id and the Super-Ego do not conflict with each other, but join forces to persuade the Ego to pursue the Id’s objective with idealistic justification. Allison and Zelikow’s Model III highlighting individual actors with personality profiles and the personified state serve as the basis for this final tier of analysis. The president must convince the other members of government of the value of the political objective and the feasibility of achieving it through either soft power or hard power or a combination of both. To do this the president must construct his arguments and choose the symbols that best represent his goals to the target audience, whether it is the military, Congress, or the public. This facet of foreign policy is informed by the sociological theories of Constructionism, Symbolic Interactionism, and Rational Choice.

Constructionism and Symbolic Interactionism propose that we humans interpret our surroundings and ourselves through ongoing interactions that determine the nature of our evolving relationships with ourselves, and those around us. These paradigms also assert that we construct ourselves how we want others to perceive us or how we perceive ourselves. It is this malleable core, which a skilled politician must manipulate to win consensus for foreign policy from all arenas necessary to proceed and pursue the political objective. For any president, their real power is persuasion and as such they must use that power to onboard the government and the nation or risk failing to attain the political objective.

According to Bob Woodward’s account of Bush’s recollection in “Plan of Attack”, “The vice president, after 9/11, clearly saw Saddam Hussein as a threat to peace, and was unwavering in his view that Saddam was a real danger.” (Woodward: 4) Woodward continues, “On the long walk-up to war in Iraq, Dick Cheney was a powerful steamrolling force. Since the terrorist attacks, he had developed an intense focus on the threats posed by Saddam and by Osama Bin Laden’s al Qaeda network, the group responsible for 9/11… For Cheney, taking care of Saddam was high necessity.” (Woodward: 4) As George H. W. Bush’s secretary of defense during the 1991 Gulf War, Cheney “harbored a deep sense of unfinished business about Iraq.” (Woodward: 9) These statements are indicative of Allison and Zelikow’s Model III for decision-making as a political resultant.

The onus of regime change, however, did not come from either Cheney or Bush, but was inherited from the Clinton administration. “A 1998 law passed by Congress and signed by President Bill Clinton authorized up to $97 million in military assistance to Iraqi opposition forces ‘to remove the regime headed by Saddam Hussein’ and ‘promote the emergence of a democratic government.’” (Woodward: 10) This fact is an artifact of Allison and Zelikow’s Models II and III for action as a function of organizational output and as the political resultant of bargaining.

According to Woodward, Bush wasn’t happy with current U.S. policy on Saddam, as it wasn’t effective in curbing his behavior or toppling his regime. (Woodward: 12) For this reason Bush’s first national security briefing as president-elect concerned Iraq since the 1991 Gulf War, Saddam’s military capabilities and the situation-report on the No-Fly-Zone actions of the previous decade. (Woodward: 12) This is an example of a Model III individual actor participating in a Model II process to assess a RAM I opponent in order to craft a solid, supportable, strategically viable political objective. Regime change in Iraq is simultaneously both Realist and Liberal. Bush wanted regime change in Iraq in order to further American interests of national security, Realist objective, and spread Liberal ideals that would nurture an international environment more cooperative with the U.S.

At Cheney’s urging Bush considered Saddam his top priority after establishing an immediate response to the terror attacks of 9/11 in the form of the war in Afghanistan. Whether it was unfinished business from a previous administration, a reaction to a perception of impending doom, or an opportunity to extend our influence, Saddam was next, Bush’s administration just had to figure out how to do it and how to sell it to the nation and the world. To get the ball rolling President Bush pulled Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld to the side after a National Security Council meeting on Wednesday, November 21, 2001. Rumsfeld was told to review the Iraq war plan but to keep it to himself and under the radar. He replied that in the near future he would need access to then Director of Central Intelligence, George Tenet. Bush indicated that would be ok, just not yet. (Woodward: 3)

Rumsfeld proposed three questions that needed to be answered in order to evaluate any potential use of military force under the new administration. First, is a proposed action truly necessary? Second, is the proposed action achievable? Third, is it worth it? (Woodward: 19) Each one of the principals on the National Security Council answered these questions to the best of their knowledge and in-line with their personal perspectives and professional experience. This demonstrates the RAM II and RAM III perspectives that Allison and Zelikow consider.  

Cheney set to work on the justifications for war. The greatest concern expressed was the possible nightmare scenario of Iraqi weapons of mass destruction or WMDs. These WMDs didn’t need to be used by Saddam, who had already shown his willingness to use chemical weapons on his own civilian population, but they could be given or sold to terrorist groups without a homeland to be retaliated against and used to attack either the U.S. homeland or our assets abroad. To prevent that from happening, both Cheney and Rumsfeld insisted that America needed to take the fight to the terrorists and that meant preemption. (Woodward: 34)

Vice President Cheney became the champion of this new policy cornerstone. But preemption itself presented issues that became obstacles to action. With the doctrine of preemption there is a requirement of irrefutable proof, a smoking gun. As Condoleeza Rice so eloquently put it, “You don’t want the smoking gun to be a mushroom cloud.” No one in the administration was willing to allow a WMD to be used on American soil before acting, therefore the issue of proof had to be resolved, ultimately shifting policy from preemption towards prevention. This transition appears to be a natural development in the revision or rebranding of Realist political objectives amid an environment of Liberal Internationalism. This transition, I think, is representative of the interaction between the Id and the Ego in Freudian psychoanalysis. This conflict between objectives and obstacles will require additional resources that can only be brought to the table by the chief executive or president as policy evangelist and the ultimate agent of persuasion, the Super-Ego.

The Deputy Secretary of Defense, Paul Wolfowitz, was perhaps second only to Cheney in the Bush Administration in his insistence for regime change in Iraq, the Clausewitzian political objective and in my assertion representative of the Id of this new administration. (Woodward: 20, 21) Wolfowitz was a Neo-Con, whose primary strategic philosophy was one of U.S. Primacy, a Realist perspective. This Realist political objective was contrasted by the need to work within the Liberal Internationalist system constructed post WWII, e.g. UN, NATO, etc…

The framework of liberal international institutions that constitutes the international relations environment can be the restraining factor for great powers’ actions, much the same way that the Ego filters the input from the Id, the Super-Ego and exogenous forces. The need to maintain the mantle of legitimacy in world opinion can be crucial to continued cooperation, increased political capital and prestige. To lose the mantle of legitimacy over preventive war was to walk alone down a dark alley at night in a rough part of town.

The administration had to navigate carefully and investigate all avenues while pursuing a decidedly focused goal, regime change in Iraq, one way or the other; the “other” being war with the hopes of establishing a democracy in the Middle East. The only problem was that the Department of Defense had no up-to-date war plans with good assumptions, according to Rumsfeld. (Woodward: 34) This constraint is addressed by Allison and Zelikow’s Model II for organizational behavior and limits in determining governmental action.

The Secretary of State, Colin Powell, was concerned over what he considered to be the rush toward war. Powell approached the president to encourage him to not feel pressured into anything prematurely and let State do its job. (Woodward: 22) Powell’s preference for overwhelming force was well known to Cheney and Rumsfeld and was one of the things about the DoD they were trying to change. Rumsfeld wanted a lighter more readily deployable military capable of quick action, while Powell, when still at JCS, preferred the slow moving, large, more deliberately deployed forces that could preclude hasty policy decisions and catastrophic miscalculations. It seems that organizational SOPs and culture at DoD, dominated by Model II dynamics, could limit degrees of freedom in foreign policy choices for any given president, a Model III actor, and Rumsfeld wanted to change that by radical transformation from ethos to implementation. This process is, I believe, representative of negotiations between the Id and the Ego on behalf of the political objective, wherein the Id recruits the Super-Ego in an attempt to redefine the parameters of the discussion to more favorable terms with more options for amiable outcomes without additional internal dissonance, or neuroses.

The key to paving the way to war, the only way to ensure regime change according to CIA director Tenet, was obtaining good intelligence on WMDs inside Iraq and Saddam’s connections to al Qaeda and other terrorist networks. (Woodward: 300) By February of 2003, CIA had infiltrated Iraq and had amazingly high quality sources. CIA’s assets included top-level officers in the security services, Republican Guard, as well as the communications corps. And yet they had next to nothing on WMDs. Simultaneously, Powell, a Model III actor bound by Model II constraints, convinced the president also a Model III actor operating within the constraints of Model II organizations, to approach the UN Security Council, an international example of a Model II decision-making organization, and seek to have IAEA weapons inspectors (actors with Models II and III attributes) placed inside Iraq. Iraq was considered as a RAM I state actor headed by a Model III dictator in Saddam Hussein.

Powell’s demands were that the inspectors be given cooperation by the Iraqi regime, comprised of Model II organizations, but heavily influenced by the existence of such a powerful Model III actor/dictator, in efforts to stave off war and determine the validity of CIA’s claims about Saddam’s WMD programs. (Woodward: 301) This step was necessary, whether or not it was simply going through the motions, because it fulfilled the requirements of world opinion concerning the mantle of legitimacy. This process is indicative of the premeditated self-presentation that must be considered by a RAM III actor, like the president, as the leader of a unitary rational state or RAM I actor. Our national character, identity and prestige are worth protecting and that is the number one job of the president; to help define what it is to be an American at the time. I think this is further evidence of the president’s role as the Super-Ego in policy decisions.

Cheney wasn’t pleased with the way things went in the UN. The initial draft resolution was held up for weeks over one simple word, “and” versus “or”. Those three letters distinguished between needing only one condition to be satisfied in the UN resolution in order to declare Saddam in breach and therefore open to military attack from the Coalition of the Willing, or both conditions being met. The clincher was the question of cooperation; Saddam could easily play the system as he had for the previous twelve years while secretly planning something horrible. Cheney wanted out of the inspections business.

It was up to Powell to sell the WMD danger to the world at the UN Security Council meeting. Powell brought in Director of Central Intelligence Tenet as an authoritative prop and proceeded to unleash an enormous and diverse litany of multimedia presentations of evidence and intelligence. “The secretary’s presentation took 76 minutes… The mixture of understatement, overstatement and personal passion made for riveting television.” (Woodward: 311) Woodward goes on to tell us that “Mary McGrory, the renowned liberal columnist for the Washington Post, and a Bush critic, wrote… ‘I can only say that he persuaded me, and I was as tough as France to convince.” Dan Bartlett, a senior Whitehouse staffer called it “the Powell buy-in.” (Woodward: 312) This situation depicts the Model III personified state/ individual actor as a charismatic influence in favor of the Realist political objective, a product evangelist, the voice of the Super-Ego exhorting the virtues of the Id to the domestic and international Egos of Model II liberal institutions being asked to change their ways. 

By this time Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld and General Franks had ironed out the wrinkles in the DoD’s war planning for Iraq. The Transformation was under way and the American military machine was well in motion by this time and approaching the necessary posture for war. The steamroller was moving; almost too fast for the speed bumps it had to clear. Bush told Rumsfeld to slow down his troop movements as they were getting a little ahead of themselves. “Don, we’re accelerating too fast relative to where we need to be because of the diplomatic side.” (Woodward: 319) Following the established rules of the liberal international system took time and with reason, to give diplomacy a chance. The troop movement timetables were revised.

Unfortunately for the administrations pursuit of the political object, the intelligence surrounding the presence of WMDs in Iraq was becoming diaphanous. They were loosing the authoritative stance of their primary reason to invade. The Super-Ego’s justification was quickly disappearing. Woodward tells us, “Several of these sources, I know, did voice their reservations within their various organizations but they also did not have enough to robustly challenge the conclusions that had already been reached. I have no evidence that the reservations of these particular sources reached the president.” (Woodward: 356)

On March 20, 2003 the first major military action occurred, but the war had begun long before. A Realist political objective had been determined, weighed and couched in Liberal terms. The Liberal International constraints were defined, the limitations of organizational behavior challenged and an administration, a microcosm of individuals, organizations and psycho-sociological constructs, began to become self-aware and move towards achieving their goal. All that remained was the neurotic discourse between the ideologue Id in pursuit of primacy, the reality check Ego and the charismatic Super-Ego, reinforcing our faith in rational choices on a foundation of asymmetric information that would lead the world into a perpetual bind. I conclude that regardless of whether or not a political objective is more easily defined by Realism or Liberalism, that in actuality, all goals seek to preserve one’s power and will work with the available options, in most cases, to achieve their ends. The reality of organizational behavior and liberal international institutions means having to compromise. This compromise is why I suggest that these functional structures act as the Ego in policy choices. In this analysis, the Super-Ego and the Id don’t fight, but cooperate to meet a perceived need. Such is the nature of bounded rationality, strategy, and the human mind.


Bob Woodward, “Plan of Attack: The Definitive Account of the Decision to Invade Iraq” © 2004. Simon & Schuster.

Graham Allison and Philip Zelikow, “Essence of Decision: Explaining the Cuban Missile Crisis” © 1999. Pearson Education.

Ruth A Wallace and Alison Wolf, “Contemporary Sociological Theory” ©  2005 Pearson Prentice Hall

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