Academic journal article Presidential Studies Quarterly

Decision Making in the Bush White House

Academic journal article Presidential Studies Quarterly

Decision Making in the Bush White House

Article excerpt

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

--Dick Cheney

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

--Donald Rumsfeld

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

--George W. Bush

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

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

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

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

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

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