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4.4: Rational Decision Making

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    In Rational Decision Making, supposedly all these factors are integrated by: 1) Defining the problem, 2) Ranking and choosing goals, 3) Identifying alternative actions and 4) Choosing an alternative.

    Kennedy’s dealing with the Cuban Missile Crisis is usually cited as the classic example. Once they realized there were Soviet missiles in Cuba, the Kennedy team discarded the goal of overthrowing Castro, instead deciding that their primary goal was to have the missiles removed. He took a middle course of setting up a naval blockade, rather than diplomacy or war, as the best alternative to achieve their goal. As part of the deal, they secretly promised the Russians not to invade Cuba, since that was less important than removing the missiles.

    Similarly, the Obama administration decided that the problem in Afghanistan was Al Qaeda, the goal was to degrade or eliminate them, and that the alternatives they would use were counterinsurgency, counter-terrorism and drone attacks.

    However, each of the four steps can be disputed:

    1) People may disagree on what the problem is. In Iraq in 2003, was the problem that Saddam Hussein was in power or that he had WMDs (weapons of mass destruction such as nukes)? Vice President Dick Cheney said the U.S. should remove Saddam if there was even a 1% chance that he had WMDs. (It turned out that he didn’t have any.)

    2) People may disagree on ranking and choosing goals.

    After 9/11, was invading Iraq more important than tracking down Osama Bin Laden or making peace between Israel and the Palestinians? Allies in the Middle East told the U.S. that Saddam was in his box and that they should instead concentrate on getting Bin Laden. Then the U.S. could use the momentum from the sympathetic international backlash from 9/11 to push Israel and the Palestinians toward peace.

    3) People may disagree on which actions are practical or prudent.

    The U.S. civilian leadership thought the invasion and occupation of Iraq would be easy. When Kauai-born Army Chief of Staff General Eric Shinseki told Congress that the occupation of Iraq would probably require several hundred thousand troops to be effective, Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld and his civilian subordinates publicly disparaged Shinseki’s assessment. But the experienced military man was right – the small number of troops Rumsfeld initially sent were spread too thin to control the insurgency. In addition, King Abdullah of Jordan warned the Americans that toppling Saddam would destabilize the entire Middle East. He also was right and also ignored.

    4) People may disagree on the best alternative.

    The Bushies wanted to invade Iraq ASAP. Others wanted to continue economic sanctions. The UN wanted to finish WMD inspections first. Hawks favor military action, diplomats favor diplomacy.

    5) Other problems.

    Different goals may conflict with each other. The U.S. wants democratic elections in the Muslim world, but is unhappy when Islamist groups win those elections, as in Gaza or Egypt. Also, several options may be good, or all of them could be bad. (Bad things happened when the U.S. stayed out of Syria. Bad things happened when the U.S. bombed but did not invade Libya. Bad things happened when the U.S. invaded Iraq. Bad things happened when the U.S. left Iraq.) There are errors and uncertainties in information (e.g. inaccurate intelligence- Bin Laden was in the tribal areas of NW Pakistan – NOT) and errors in judgment (Al Qaeda won’t attack the U.S. at home). People also try to avoid acknowledging failures. (Nixon and Kissinger stayed in Vietnam instead of cutting their losses and getting out.)

    Foreign policy and domestic policy goals may conflict. For instance, U.S. presidents allow foreign imports to help allies, but face pushback from domestic producers. They work to win farm states votes by continuing to give U.S. farmers subsidies, which encourage more production, increase world supplies and lower prices for farmers in other countries. Bush tried to pull steel state votes by setting high tariffs on foreign steel imports, angering foreign steel producers.

    The result of all these constraints on rational decision making is that in reality officials frequently move incrementally by trial and error (muddling through), choosing the first available option that seems positive, rather than choosing long-range, goal oriented options.


    1. Explain the principle established by the 1648 Treaty of Westphalia.

    2. Give one example each of multipolar and bipolar periods in world politics. Briefly describe today’s structure.

    3. List three system factors that affect world politics. Give two specific examples.

    4. Briefly define sovereignty, nation and state. Give one example where nations and states do not coincide.

    5. List three national/domestic factors that affect world politics. Give three specific examples.

    6. Briefly outline Rational Decision Making theory and two problems with it. What usually happens instead of rational decisions?

    7. List three individual/leadership factors that affect world politics. Give three specific examples.

    This page titled 4.4: Rational Decision Making is shared under a CC BY-NC-ND 4.0 license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Lawrence Meacham.

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