Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

November 10, 2010

Decisions, Decisions

Filed under: General Homeland Security — by Mark Chubb on November 10, 2010

I have spent a lot of time over the past few days driving, which means I have had little time to follow the news other than listening to radio. Nevertheless, I have become aware of the furor surrounding the release of President George W. Bush’s memoir, Decision Points.

The whole process of decision-making is a subject I find intensely interesting, and one that has received considerable attention from scholars and practitioners alike in recent years. The decisions-making processes of leaders, particularly those confronting crises, have come under particular scrutiny for the reasons one might imagine, but also receive attention because they illuminate some interesting issues, such as the unique ability of humans to make reasonable, even highly effective decisions under unusually difficult conditions.

Anyone who has studied decision-making with any rigor recognizes that leaders often find themselves confronted with competing agendas, ambiguous goals, incomplete information and incompatible data. Time-pressure and critical consequences only compound the difficulties confronting decision-makers in crises.

From what I can tell from the interviews given by the former president on his book tour, these issues did not figure all that prominently in critical situations during his presidency. For instance, when it came to the decision to employ so-called aggressive interrogation techniques, Bush acknowledges unapologetically that he deferred to the judgments of others, despite the obvious evidence that their legal opinions were contested if not in outright conflict those of with widely-recognized experts outside the administration.

When it came to the decision to grant clemency rather than a presidential pardon to I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby, who was convicted for his role in the outing of CIA employee Valerie Plame, Bush claims his prime consideration was protecting the institution of the presidency rather than the friendship, feelings or even judgments of others, including Vice President Dick Cheney who it is said viewed the decision as cowardly, comparing it to leaving a wounded soldier behind on the field of battle. One can only wonder whether justice had anything to do with President Bush’s judgments about the case.

The circumstances that confront leaders, especially in crisis situations, often do not avail themselves of exhaustive analysis. Even if time were not of the essence, such processes require too much clarity about the outcome and specificity about the input variables to make them practical in such instances.

These features do not confine themselves to genuinely important decisions though. I am confronted with just such a dilemma when it comes to deciding whether or not to read what Mr. Bush has written. Ordinarily, I would devour such a tome because I find the topic itself so compelling. But I have doubts as to whether the insights offered by the former president will prove all that illuminating.

In making my decision, I am trying to avoid my all too obvious revulsion to the former president and his policies. If I take the approach suggested by the author himself in the interviews aired the past few days, I would either rely on the judgments of others whom I trust without regard for critics or I would apply heuristics that reflect my deeply held biases.

I usually go with my gut in such situations, which suggests a tendency to accept the latter rather than the former bit of advice. So that leaves me wondering what those of you reading this blog think. Is Decision Points worth a read for anyone seriously concerned about the way leaders reach conclusions of real consequence to our country and the world in which we live? Do you plan to pick up a copy and give it a go? If so, why?

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Comment by William R. Cumming

November 10, 2010 @ 1:53 am

It is important that we know what President George W. Bush thought he was doing! Whether in fact he correctly captures factors in his decision making at the time of those decisions might be weighted with some skepticism. I read most of these but find that the Presidential historians have largely conceded the limited value of all but the autobiographical effort of President’s Grant and Truman perhaps is a more accurate judge of the effort. Clearly President Bush always wanted to “appear” decisive more than worrying about the decision itself. Notice often in his listed “decisions” how seldom he sought or took the advice of his principal advisors. He was “in charge” in his own mind at least.

Comment by Jason

November 10, 2010 @ 7:44 am

“The Decider” made some really bad decisions. Big surprise. I’m not going to get the book. I already know how the ending turns out.

Comment by William R. Cumming

November 10, 2010 @ 7:58 am

Actually the ending might be the Presidency of Jeb! The intended President from the start for the Bushies of that generation.

Comment by hwk

November 10, 2010 @ 9:13 am

One important point in decision-making is how much information does the decider have before he/she is confronted with a certain situation.
If there is no time for information gathering, you have to resort to the stuff you know, your skills and your “experts”.

athletes practise certain situations again and again, so in the competition they don’t have to think about it they (just) do it. manager and politicians can’t practise every situation they have to use their experience and they benefit from good preparation.

I don’t know if it was Machiavelli (I think it was someone else) who said something about surveying your country in peace-time, to be prepared for war.

You have to be an expert in the first place, so you are able to react the right way when the crisis hits you (or even anticipate and prevent the big decision with a number of early, small decisions – some people call it pro-active, and not reactive).

However, in politics decision-making is very difficult.

Comment by William R. Cumming

November 11, 2010 @ 1:43 am

Thomas Bayer [sic] first to concern decision making with intuition in 18th Century? Mathematician?

Comment by Mark Chubb

November 11, 2010 @ 12:18 pm

Bill, you’re probably thinking of English mathematecian and Presbyterian minister Thomas Bayes, who invented (or discovered as some prefer) a mathematical approach to estimating the probabilities of uncertain events based upon the occurrence of conditional precedents. See Bayes’ Theorem.

Comment by William R. Cumming

November 11, 2010 @ 8:12 pm

Exactly Mark! Thanks for the info. Close but no cigar is a rule that I sometimes maximize. So many thanks.

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