THE BLOG
05/04/2006 08:34 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Iran - Inside Bush's Brain

Understandably, since the publication of Seymour Hersh's New Yorker article about secret Bush Administration planning for an air attack on Iran, there's been a lot of speculation about what's going to happen. Will George Bush and Karl Rove dare to reprise their Iraq ploy and once again bang the drums for war just before an off-year election? Will Dubya actually pull the nuclear trigger? While pundits have explored the policy and political consequences of an attack on Iran, they've ignored an equally important consideration: How does President Bush actually make decisions? And, what does this suggest that he's going to do about Iran?

In his classic study of the Cuban Missile Crisis, Elements of Decision, Harvard Professor Graham Allison described three models of presidential decision-making: The first is the rational actor, where the President and his advisers engage in an elaborate form of cost-benefit analysis. Allison labels the second as the Organizational behavior model. Rather than focus on individual actors, this views Presidential decisions as the product of organizations within the Administration. The third model focuses on the politics of a government. It understands decisions as the products of bargaining among key Administration players. Allison uses the notion of political decision-making to describe not only the factors that are included in the decision - political considerations, such as opinion polls, that would not necessarily be included in a cost-benefit analysis - but the actual process of reaching the decision, the jockeying for position among groups holding rival opinions. For example, the decision to invade Iraq was the result of fierce competition between two factions: Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, Karl Rove, and Condoleezza Rice on one side, and Colin Powell and Richard Armitage on the other. The Cheney-Rumsfeld-Rove-Rice group prevailed, and Powell and Armitage left the Administration.

If you routinely read Op-Eds, you've probably noted that writers often assume that President Bush is a rational actor. Pundits, such as Thomas Friedman, implore Bush to use common sense about Iraq, Katrina, and the economy, among other subjects. They infer that he's asleep or has temporarily lost his grip. These writers imagine that the President will eventually wake up and realize that the occupation is a quagmire, Katrina victims need more attention, and the economy is being weakened by protracted deficit spending.

However, most political observers describe Dubya's decision making as political rather than rational. Washington insiders agree that the Bush Administration has been political to an extent not seen in modern presidencies. That the White House operates in the mode that Sidney Blumenthal once described as "the permanent campaign." Bush's most trusted advisers, Dick Cheney and Karl Rove, are aggressive, political animals. Until last month, Rove, who was George's campaign manager in 2000 and 2004, served in the dual role as the overseer of the Republican strategy for 2006 and the President's policy adviser, where he reviews the political consequences of every White House decision.

The Bush Administration's Iraq decision-making was intensely political. Indeed, the President appeared to be operating from a guidebook prepared by Niccolo Machiavelli, who observed, "politics have no relations to morals." The Italian sage argued that the principal objective of political leaders is to increase their power. A review of the 36 months since the US invaded Iraq indicates that, while the occupation has not gone well, Bush's power has increased. Many believe that the decision to invade Iraq was ultimately made to create a winning campaign issue for Republicans to use in the 2002 congressional elections. As a result, Republicans strengthened their hold on the House of Representatives, and gained control of the Senate. The GOP has used this advantage to pass legislation that benefits their powerful constituents, and to pack the Federal judiciary with conservative judges.

Professor Allison's analysis of presidential decision-making doesn't include a fourth model that many observers ascribe to Bush: the messianic actor. In unguarded moments, Dubya claims that God calls his signals. The BBC reported that, last June, Bush used messianic phrasing in his conversation with Palestinian officials, "President Bush said to all of us: 'I'm driven with a mission from God. God would tell me, 'George, go and fight those terrorists in Afghanistan.' And I did, and then God would tell me, 'George, go and end the tyranny in Iraq ...' And I did. And now, again, I feel God's words coming to me." If this is how Dubya actually makes decisions, then he may bomb Iran simply because he feels in his gut that it is the right thing to do.

Whether Bush is guided primarily by political considerations, or by his belief that God is guiding his actions, probably makes little difference in the outcome. Both perspectives have dangerous limitations, as they focus on the short term and are inherently self-centered.

The situation with Iran is exceedingly dangerous. What America needs is considered decision-making that pays attention to the common good, carefully thinks through the long-term consequences. Unfortunately, that's not what we can expect President Bush to do. That's why Sy Hershs' New Yorker article is so worrisome. Iran is a set up for Bush's brain to fail us again.