Dissecting Strategic Decision Making: #Reviewing Leap of Faith

Leap of Faith: Hubris, Negligence, and America’s Great Foreign Policy Tragedy. Michael J. Mazarr. New York, NY: PublicAffairs, 2019.                                      

Yogi Berra, not widely renowned as an American strategist, purportedly once quipped, “In theory, there is no difference between theory and practice, but in practice there is.”[1] This well-worn quote captures the thrust of Leap of Faith: Hubris, Negligence, and America’s Great Foreign Policy Tragedy. In theory, policy, and strategy are the product of extensive analysis, detailed cost-benefit calculations, and rational criteria for decision-making. In practice, good strategy development is also about compromise and consensus building, resolving problems, mitigating uncertainty and constraints, and steering downstream through the fluid dynamics of international and domestic politics. In theory, leaders master the rational cost-benefit analysis and minimize the bureaucratic inertia towards desired political goals. In practice, hubris and institutional bias can cloud sound judgment and prudent strategy formulation.

Leap of Faith is forensic political science at its best. The medical examiner is Dr. Mike Mazarr, an established policy analyst who served on the Joint Staff, taught strategic thinking at the National War College, and now works at RAND. The book offers an essentially chronological dissection of the persistent-but-uneven path toward the invasion of Iraq in 2003. The author deftly carves out a depressing narrative from briefing slides, decision memos, and interviews with a sharp scalpel.

There is not a lot of new information in the book. Bob Woodward’s Plan of Attack and Tom Ricks' Fiasco, among others, have covered the initial invasion and occupation well. Of course, there are also numerous memoirs from President George W. Bush and his team—Decision Points, In My Time, and Known and Unknown are just a few. However, the strength of Leap of Faith is its critical synthesis of the ebb and flow of the decision-making process (such as it was), and the integration of the post-war comments from key participants as they explain their thoughts and actions retrospectively. It’s an accomplishment, even if the reader is depressed to find that so much treasure was spent on the basis of so little strategic reasoning.

After completing his autopsy, Mazarr searches for accountability, understanding that good people can make reasonable misjudgments under the pressures of time and uncertainty while pursuing desired ends. He is reluctant to pin accountability on a single individual, especially given the scale of the policy debacle and the contributions of so many senior policymakers. The role of military leaders, Congress, and the media are all scrutinized for culpability. In searching for criteria to assess accountability, he develops an interesting theory of a “doctrine of policy negligence.” Negligence can be found when a reasonable person would expect the actions taken by policymakers to be short of the duty of care required to obtain stated aims within reasonable costs and risk. Much of the implementation actions of the Bush Administration’s Iraq policy fail this test. “Efforts to mitigate the risks of failure were half-hearted at best,” the author notes, “and confined largely to problems of major combat operations and the immediate aftermath.”[2] At the end of the day, Mazarr finds:

There is a difference between a truly honest, well-informed mistake, in which the decision-maker has acquired and taken seriously every piece of information possible to reasonably assess and has promoted rigorous thinking and open debate, and a mistake that even at the time reflects powerful degrees of ignorance, refusal to accept contrary information, stubbornness, and Machiavellian tactics.[3]

While the cast of characters involved is long—including, but not limited to, Cheney, Rumsfeld, Rice, Wolfowitz, Feith, and Tenet—President Bush cannot escape the ultimate responsibility for creating a policymaking environment in which facts were treated as irrelevant to outcomes and where dissent was seen as both disloyal and pointless, if not career endangering. At the end, with all the pieces before him, the author finds Bush the most accountable, as he is ultimately responsible for the decision and the decision-making environment he created in his Cabinet and its supporting organs, particularly the National Security Council and its staff. As Mazarr concludes:

The rationale for going to war was not deeply interrogated—indeed it was never even debated in an NSC meeting.  The President and his senior officials did not make certain to acquire all the information available at the time; repeatedly they ignored or bypassed the testimony of experts.[4]

There are some surprises in assessing complicity. Mazarr throws a bit of cold water on the Goldwater-Nichols reforms of 1986, concluding that Washington—and the Pentagon in particular—was too deferential to regional combatant commanders such as General Tommy Franks at U.S. Central Command, a commander who was profanely dismissive of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. In Mazarr’s telling, General Franks comes in for detailed scrutiny, in particular for telling the president that he had a plan for the post-combat phase.

Gen. Tommy Franks with U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, 2002. (Robert D. Ward/DoD Photo)

While Mazarr’s vivisection is sharp and thorough, his prescription to preclude further negligence is limited. He proposes that a strategy commission be permanently established, composed of independent thinkers without allegiance to any administration and willing to offer tough and honest opinions. Its members could offer blunt feedback to the president before fateful decisions are finalized, and they could also be charged with routinely publishing post-mortems to assess decisions and execution of policy. “A harsh judgment from such a body,” Mazarr believes, “would impose a price on those who have performed poorly.”[5] Such a body would augment the staff of the National Security Council, and could conceivably avoid groupthink. More recently, the U.S. Army’s assessment of the Iraq War concluded the National Security System, as constituted today, is not adequate to support presidential strategy formulation and implementation. Other scholars have offered possible remedies but these National Security Council process options are not explored.

It should be recognized that legislating how future presidents make decisions is problematic, and that each chief executive will consult with and weigh advice differently. All strategic decisions, including judgments about going to war, are an admixture of politics, personality, and process. Rarely has the combination been so fatal to policy and strategy as in the case of the Iraq War. If you want to understand the difference between academic theory about strategy and the sometimes ugly reality of its practice, Leap of Faith should be at the top of your list. This is an objective and finely balanced assessment. All strategic studies programs, including the professional military educational system, will benefit from Dr. Mazarr’s post-mortem. Not everyone will agree with Mazarr’s diagnosis of a strong crusading or messianic streak in America’s strategic culture, but it will surely provoke a spirited seminar debate.

Another one of Berra’s famous and apropos quotes is, “If you don’t know where you’re going, you end up someplace else.” After readers consider the uneven path toward Operation Iraqi Freedom, as sadness may set in on recalling we ended up someplace other than we intended.

Frank Hoffman is a national security analyst and former Pentagon official. He is a Distinguished Research Fellow at the Institute for National Strategic Studies at National Defense University. These comments are his own and do not reflect those of the National Defense University, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.

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Header Image: George W. Bush and his inner circle, photographed in the Cabinet Room of the White House in December 2001. From left: Secretary of State Colin Powell, Vice President Dick Cheney, the president, National-Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice, White House chief of staff Andrew Card, C.I.A. director George Tenet (seated), and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. (Annie Leibovitz/Vanity Fair)


[1] O’Toole, Garson. “In Theory There Is No Difference Between Theory and Practice, While In Practice There Is: Yogi Berra? Albert Einstein? Richard Feynman? Benjamin Brewster? Charles F. Kettering? Walter J. Savitch? Jan L. A. van de Snepscheut? Dave Jeske? Chuck Reid?” Quote Investigator. https://quoteinvestigator.com/2018/04/14/theory/

[2]  Michael J. Mazarr, Leap of Faith, Hubris, Negligence, and America’s Great Foreign Policy Tragedy (New York: PublicAffairs, 2017), 395.

[3] Ibid., 390.

[4] Ibid., 395.

[5] Ibid., 400.