John notes this interesting post by Matthew Dickinson about the limits of presidential decision-making, concluding that presidents are constrained in their ability to influence even their own decision-making processes. Dickinson is undoubtedly right that presidential advisers and bureaucratic machinations constrain the options from which presidents choose, even if presidents are the final “deciders.” But in the realm of foreign policy at least, there is evidence that presidents are willing not only to decide between the options presented to them, but also to shape those options or demand alternatives.
Take the case of decisions to use force, especially full-scale military interventions—among the most high-profile decisions a president makes. On the one hand, presidents might be especially cautious about their decision-making process in such risky cases. On the other hand, many presidents do not have much military or foreign policy expertise and so might be likely to defer to their advisers. Furthermore, as Dickinson points out in this post, presidents have to act on imperfect information in foreign affairs and the bureaucracy is highly fragmented, just as it is in domestic policy (see the well-known work of Graham Allison for more on the latter point).
One way to test the role of the president is to look at a leader not known for his skill in foreign or defense policy. Lyndon Johnson would seem to fit the bill. Although I and several others have argued he had more chops in foreign and defense policy than he’s usually given credit for, he was far less interested and experienced in foreign policy than other Cold War presidents. Even so, he was no pushover in the decision-making process when considering the use of force.
Consider the Dominican Republic crisis of 1965, when Johnson ultimately sent 24,000 troops to stop what he perceived to be the threat of a communist takeover on the island. According to White House aide Jack Valenti’s notes, in a meeting on April 30, 1965, when Secretary of State Dean Rusk said Johnson could accomplish his goals by working through the Organization of American States, the president turned to Robert McNamara and said, “Why don’t you first find out what we need to take that island. Rusk, why don’t you determine what it takes to make this take on the right color.” As his advisers continued to present options that would provide international legitimacy and reflect the reality on the ground, Johnson continued to push:
McGeorge Bundy: We have done a great deal. We are talking about a division going in and we couldn’t do that several days ago.
LBJ: I think enough leaders are there to make it Castro…I am ashamed of the little we have done.
George Ball: But we have done considerable; we have put men ashore without real angry response.
LBJ: I want McNamara to get ready so that Castro cannot take over.
George Ball later recalled that Johnson “became, in effect, the Dominican desk officer.”
Other presidents have made similar attempts to change their options. Kennedy repeatedly objected (pdf) to the conventional war options presented to him during his decision-making on Vietnam, and pushed the bureaucracy to provide him with options for his preferred policy, counterinsurgency. Notably, the U.S. counterinsurgency effort ultimately failed, largely because of bureaucratic resistance—but the point is that Kennedy made a personal and sustained effort to get the option on the table, and then chose it. More recently, according to news accounts and Bob Woodward’s book Obama’s Wars, Obama also objected to the options presented to him during the debate over strategy in Afghanistan, and in the end got unusually involved in the policy process.
Presidents may not speak up in this way very often, but this is not surprising. Presidents take care with advisory appointments precisely because they know they won’t have time to dictate the options that cross their desks in most cases—appointments are a way to invest in policies and try to shape options. Advisers, in turn, try to anticipate presidential preferences when formulating options. No system of delegation is perfect, and the bureaucracy will surely leave its own mark on presidential options—whether through deliberate manipulation, well-intentioned but misguided advice, bad information, or flying under the radar of presidential monitoring. But when we observe a president selecting from options presented to him by advisers, we cannot necessarily conclude that he had little effect on their formation. John is probably right that we tend to overestimate the president’s effect on decision-making. Yet much of the time, the process will reflect presidential preferences to a significant degree—and on some rare but important occasions, presidents will speak up, and dig down deeper into the weeds.