Risk and Presidential Decision-Making: The Emergence of Foreign Policy Crises.
In the May 2011 edition of the American Historical Association's newsletter, Perspectives on History, David Paull Nickles lamented the "estrangement" that has taken place between diplomatic historians and political scientists. For instance, whereas diplomatic historians have given greater emphasis to the role played by culture, many international relations theorists prefer the world of rational-choice theory, which assumes that people make logical decisions. But there is hope, Nickles continued, for some political scientists have drawn upon psychology and neuroscience to offer works that transcend the divide with diplomatic historians.
Luca Trenta's new book continues this trend against rational-choice theory by offering an interpretation that emphasizes the role played by risk in decision making at the presidential level. His argument is threefold. First, presidents always take risk into account in their decisions. Second, too many scholars have contended that decision making during the Cold War focused on "long-term strategies" (4), while those in the post-Cold War were more short term in orientation. In fact, though, "risk management" (4), whether during or after the Cold War, has involved short-term considerations and was designed to minimize the dangers inherent in the course adopted. Finally, the option a president selects contains risks of its own that can make controlling the situation even more difficult.
In developing this thesis, Trenta relies on three case studies: the John F. Kennedy administration's handling of relations with Cuba in the 18 months prior to the Cuban Missile Crisis, the Carter White House's reaction to the events of 1977-1979 that precipitated the Iran Hostage Crisis, and President Bill Clinton's response to the Balkan crisis of 1992-1995. In each case, he demonstrates that the chief executive, influenced by the political and international environments, faced uncertainties that were key to the risk trade-offs he considered. In all three, the White House emphasized short-term considerations, thus disproving the Cold War/post-Cold War dichotomy cited above. Moreover, those decisions generated new risks. Kennedy's actions convinced the Soviets and Cubans that he intended to invade Cuba. Carter and his aides were so determined to support the Shah that they ignored the opposition or failed to prepare contingency plans in case the Shah fell from power. For his part, Clinton's concerns about the domestic and international political environments led him to "adopt sub-optimal policies" (190).
In drawing these conclusions, Trenta did an exceptional amount of research. He consulted a wide variety of secondary sources and spent time at the National Security Archive (a private, nonprofit organization housed at the George Washington University library), the Library of Congress, and the Carter and Clinton libraries. He examined documents placed online by the Foundation for Iranian Studies and by the Kennedy, Lyndon B. Johnson, and George H. W. Bush Libraries. Additionally, he interviewed key participants in these events, including former President Jimmy Carter and former First Lady Rosalynn Carter, Robert Dole, James Hooper, John Limbert, and Gary Sick.
To his credit, Trenta avoids limiting his discussion to the state as the key actor and, instead, addresses the role played by those at the highest levels who actually make the decisions. In so doing, he accounts for the pressures presidents face from all sides, be it foreign countries, members of the cabinet, political opponents, or Congress. For example, Congressman Jacob Javits' resolution condemning the post-Shah government of Mehdi Bazargan restricted Carter's freedom to maneuver. Likewise, Senator Robert Dole criticized Clinton's handling of the Balkan crisis during the 1996 presidential campaign, thus adding to the pressures faced by Clinton.
Trenta does leave two interrelated questions unanswered. First, do the three case studies he has chosen prove that in all decision making in the foreign policy realm, risk is the prime consideration? Second, Trenta has shown that politics affects presidents' decision making, but what about personality? Both Carter and Bush had very strong religious views. To what extent does their religiousness play in their assessment of risk? Might it be possible that at times a president reacts emotionally and, in the process, throws risk out the window? As Keren Yarhi-Milo wrote in Knowing the Adversary: Leaders, Intelligence, and Assessment of Intentions in International Relations (Princeton University Press, 2014, 155), Carter had "a strong emotional reaction" to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Did President George W. Bush, who claimed that Saddam Hussein "tried to kill my dad at one time," give much thought to the risk of overthrowing the Iraqi leader?
These questions aside, Luca Trenta has given readers a book that provides much food for thought and gives necessary emphasis to the human element in decision making. He offers a new way of considering why presidents behave as they do. Further work on other presidencies and other case studies will demonstrate the credence of his approach.
Francis Marion University
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|Publication:||Presidential Studies Quarterly|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Mar 1, 2017|
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