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Presidential Crisis Leadership and the Weinberger Doctrine.

September 11, 2013

Presidential leadership in our times, especially in foreign affairs crises, requires a mastery of complexity. Complexity for our purposes can be loosely defined as a context in which some controllable and many uncontrollable factors need to be taken into account when leading up to a significant decision. United States Presidents must be skilled in how to lead in a “complexity leadership context”. After all, there are many players to contend with on the presidential leadership landscape: their administrations and departments, such as the Departments of Defense and State, the Congress, the Senate, the homeland security architecture including the FBI, CIA, and the NSC. Every President must also consider the effects that their decisions have on foreign policy and our alliances. Most of all, they must understand and clearly assess public opinion and the will of the people.

The Presidential crisis leadership process in many ways mimics a complex adaptive system. For example, it has the following:

  • Multiple independent agents (many random variables, some building on previous variables)
  • Non-linear (decision inputs come from all directions at various times)
  • Recurrency – recursive (sometimes you have to revisit a part of the process based on new non-anticipated input)
  • Consequence of competing factors (tug-of-war among many perspectives on the same problem)
  • Emergent structure from interrelated patterns of experience, social interaction, and cognitive mechanisms (constantly morphing “soft” structure)
  • Can’t be reversed (random, unforeseen events make it impossible to do reverse planning & analysis)
  • Needs constant energy flow (or the decision process disintegrates)

Deciding on an appropriate national response to the apparent atrocities carried out by Syrian leadership is a great example of the complexity of Presidential crisis leadership. You really can’t have a decision that will please everyone so at some point one has to come to a response that is largely based on analysis, but also reflects what the President believes in ethically right and congruent with the principles and values of the nation.

Analysis Example – The Weinberger Doctrine:

Cap WeinbergerWhen I served in the military, I had occasion to read and study a document which would later be called the “Weinberger Doctrine”. Casper (“Cap”) Weinberger was Secretary of Defense in the Reagan era (1981-89). He wrote a series of conditions which he felt needed to be met before the President and the Congress could commit troops to battle or peacekeeping arrangements.

Here are those Weinberger Doctrine conditions:

  1. The United States should not commit forces to combat unless the vital national interests of the United States or its allies are involved.
  2. U.S. troops should only be committed wholeheartedly and with the clear intention of winning. Otherwise, troops should not be committed.
  3. U.S. combat troops should be committed only with clearly defined political and military objectives and with the capacity to accomplish those objectives.
  4. The relationship between the objectives and the size and composition of the forces committed should be continually reassessed and adjusted if necessary.
  5. U.S. troops should not be committed to battle without a “reasonable assurance” of the support of U.S. public opinion and Congress.
  6. The commitment of U.S. troops should be considered only as a last resort.

Principles and Values:

Making a decision that is the “right” decision always includes a fair amount of taking in a lot of input, looking at priorities and ethics, as well as considering the extended impact of the decision. A good leader skillfully blends all available input information with his/her own guiding set of principles and values. In the case of the President, he/she must take into account the country’s principles and values as well. If you try and please all the people all the time, you will wind up pleasing no one. You’ve got to act and stand by your decision in the face of what surely will be opposition.

Consider the contrasts between the 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion and the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis – two events that showed a maturation and learning behind the President’s decision-making apparatus.

Bay of Pigs Invasion of Cuba – 1961:

Bay of Pigs InvasionIn this event, Presidential advisors suffered from a great deal of “groupthink”, resulting in the ill-fated decision to launch a covert invasion of Cuba with the goal of overthrowing Fidel Castro.

Result: Castro found out about the “covert” invasion through press leaks. The ~1,400 invaders were vastly outnumbered and lacked air support and other basic items. Most surrendered and the rest died. “How could I have been so stupid?” President John F. Kennedy asked that after the Bay of Pigs fiasco. He called it a “colossal mistake.” It left him feeling depressed, guilty, bitter, and in tears. One historian later called the Bay of Pigs, “one of those rare events in history — a perfect failure.” Our degraded leadership and credibility led Khrushchev to conclude that he could arm Cuba with long-range nuclear missiles that could threaten the United States.

Cuban Missile Crisis – 1962:

Cuban Missile CrisisThe same group of advisors that were so afraid of “rocking the boat” during the Bay of Pigs event proved to be successful in supporting an effective Presidential decision-making process with respect to the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis. Kennedy was highly inclusive and expansive in soliciting advice and actively encouraged dissenting opinions. He used experts on Soviet culture and policy. He took a decision 13 days after the beginning of the crisis – resisting a surgical airstrike that could have significant collateral damage, loss of life, and subsequent retaliation.

Result: The President was able to craft a decision that ensured U.S. goals were achieved while not provoking any retaliation by Khrushchev. He decided on a limited quarantine – only for nuclear weapons. He and his brother RFK negotiated a deal that secretly removed our Jupiter missiles from Turkey and pledged that the U.S. would not invade Cuba. These actions eliminated the crisis and caused the Soviet Union to remove the missiles from Cuba.

We do not hope to recreate the same context in which the Cuban Missile Crisis was encountered and solved – that is impossible. We can, however, draw some interpretations from it to apply to our current crisis and standoff with Syria. One is that inclusion of all opinions and advice from a relatively wide swath of people and organizations, assuming it can be obtained in a timely way, can enable better Presidential decisions. A second observation is that it may serve us well to revisit the Weinberger Doctrine.  Finally, and this is applicable in most any historical context, Presidents need to be able to state, “I made this decision using the best information and input at the time, coupled with applying my principles and values and those of my fellow Americans – I stand by my decision.”


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