The Lost Art of Presidential Decision-Making


You’ve got to ask the question, what caused me to want to win?” George W. Bush, during his oral history for The Last Card: Inside George W. Bush’s Decision to Surge in Iraq

How does a president decide to send troops into battle? How does he or she weigh the contradictory, even conflicting advice from national security officials, military advisers, and those outside of government? Variations across time, individuals, and problems mean that Presidents have approached wartime decisions more like artists than engineers. They have drawn on bits of history, their interpretation of the national interest, and consideration of their fellow citizen’s views in making choices and crafting strategy.

The quality of such art seems to be in decline. Already in summer 2019, President Trump has reportedly approved military strikes against Iran before aborting the missions at the last moment. His National Security Advisor, is, according to the press, pushing for a war that the President does not want. And the strikes may have been averted after an intervention by a Fox News personality. It is not clear who is making the decisions, how they are made, or whether or not they will be implemented. If this is art, it lies in the category of drunken fingerpainting using the medium preferred by Chris Ofili.

Now, with the passage of time and aided by the willingness of a President and his staff to share their experiences, it is possible to look back fully grapple with a far different example of presidential decision-making. There has been, without question, enormous debate and controversy over George W. Bush’s decision-making over the Iraq War. But The Last Card: Inside George W. Bush’s Decision to Surge in Iraq, reveals the intricate debates and decisions  taken in 2006 that led to the surge of U.S. troops to Iraq in 2007, and how the President managed this process to arrive at his decision and ensure it was carried out.

The Last Card offers a highly detailed study of the President’s decision-making process. Over eight chapters of oral history, it relates the memories of the President, Vice President, Secretary of State, Secretary of Defense, and twenty-four other leaders, officials, and officers in the lead up to the surge. The oral histories, the transcripts of which will also be available in full from Southern Methodist University’s Center for Presidential History Collective Memory Project, highlight the competing ideas and internal debates about the best policy for the United States in Iraq. President Bush was presented with an enormous range of advice from his senior aides: Nearly no one suggested increasing troops, while others proposed withdrawing; some urged the President to stick with the current strategy while others called for a fundamental change in how U.S. forces operated in Iraq.

“Presidential power is the power to persuade.” – Richard Neustadt

Like any consequential piece of art, the President’s decision to surge has been celebrated and critiqued, and indeed it is evaluated differently even by those interviewed for The Last Card. The process that led to the President’s decision is a source of debate amongst presidential scholars, and The Last Card brings together eight historians and political scientists to consider the decision-making process that led to the surge. They compare it to previous instances of national security decision-making, and test it against theories of strategy and executive action. What all agree on, however, is that the President invested enormous energy and effort into the decision to surge, but also in bringing along key players in government and in the military – including even those who had resisted the idea. As Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, an early skeptic of simply sending more forces to Iraq, told us: “The president can always just order, but it’s not always the prudent thing to do or the right thing to do.” The story of the decision to surge as told in The Last Card, then, is not only the art of making a decision but the art of presidential decision-making: How to come to a decision, and to do so in such a way that allows the president to bring the full support of government to bear in implementing that decision.

Timothy Andrews Sayle is Assistant Professor History at the University of Toronto and Director of the International Relations Program at Trinity College. He is a fellow of the Bill Graham Centre for Contemporary International History and Southern Methodist University’s Center for Presidential History. In 2019, he published Enduring Alliance: A History of NATO and the Postwar Global Order and edited, with Jeffrey A. Engel, Hal Brands, and William Inboden, The Last Card: Inside George W. Bush’s Decision to Surge in Iraq.

last card

Featured photo: Painting by President George W. Bush. Photo by Grant Miller) Link, here.

The Lost Art of Presidential Decision-Making