Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Essense of Decision: Explaining the Cuban Missile Crisis

By Graham Allison and Philip Zelikow

The aim of this book is to examine the Cuban Missile Crisis using three different conceptual frameworks. This allows the reader to understand how the various frameworks color the types of questions you ask, what information you need, and how you view the causes of an action. The Cuban missile crisis is used as an example because it was such a complex and important issue in foreign policy and because there is a relative wealth of information that has been released about the events.

The first framework that is used, Model I, is the Rational Actor Model. This model basically thinks of a country as one monolithic decision maker that considers the strategic situation, its own objectives and goals, and then makes a rational decision based on the information. You’re basically thinking of a nation as if it were a person. This is the model that most people use without even realizing it – when you ask “Why did Russia send missiles to Cuba?” you’re inherently thinking of ‘Cuba’ as if it can make decisions or take actions. Using this method to look at the Cuban missile crisis, you might decide that Cuba sent missiles to help to improve its strategic missile position relative to the U.S. – the U.S. had lots of missiles that could reach Russia, but many of Russia’s missiles were shorter range, so the only way to counter the U.S. capability was to build longer-range missiles or to place its shorter-range missiles closer to the U.S. It chose the latter. Asking why the U.S. chose to blockade Cuba in response may lead a Model I analyst to focus on the choice of an option short of all-out attack on Cuba, but strong enough to show Russia (and domestic political rivals) that the U.S. was taking a firm stance. A Model I analyst would see Khrushchev’s decision to remove the missiles as a logical reaction to the credible threat of American action coupled with the superior American conventional and nuclear power.

The second framework presented, Model II, is an Organizational Model. The organizational model focuses on what groups – various bureaucracies, offices, etc. were involved, what information they had, what they were already doing, and what they were capable of doing. One of the main ideas in this framework is that the best way to predict what an organization will be doing tomorrow is by looking at what the organization is doing today. It also points out that the information and actions available to a decision-maker are based on what organizations are currently capable of. Therefore, the data gathering on Cuba going on through the CIA efforts and standard protocol for planning air reconnaissance played a big role in what information was available to decision makers, and when. The fact that the U.S. had a large Navy, and in fact already had plans for a Naval blockade drawn up, made the choice of this action possible. The idea that actions aren’t always the result of rational decision-making, but rather the result of normal organizational processes, is particularly interesting and useful for understanding things that don’t seem to make sense under model one. For example, the Russians were very careful to hide the missiles from view and be secretive about their efforts while on the ships on the way to Cuba, but once they were in Cuba, they didn’t make any efforts to camouflage the missiles and they build the missile bases in a way that was identical to Soviet missile bases. This led some, using a Model I framework, to be confused about this action, or even to think that maybe Russia wanted the U.S. to detect the missiles. However, using Model II framework, these actions make more sense. The procedures for shipping were put together by the Soviet intelligence agency, so it makes sense that secrecy was a priority. However, when the ships landed, the Soviet operational military forces in Cuba took over. For them, the priority was to work quickly and finish the bases as soon as possible, since their efforts would have been greatly hindered by trying to work beneath camouflage netting or only work at night, they chose to prioritize speed. They built the missile bases identical to Soviet designs, because they were Soviet soldiers building new bases ‘by the book’ based on all their previous experience – how else would they have built them?

The organizational framework also points out a number of nearly catastrophic events during the crisis that weren’t actions taken by a rational actor, but rather the unfortunate result of multiple organizational processes overlapping in unexpected ways. For example, when Kennedy announced that the USSR was moving missiles into Cuba, he raised the U.S. military readiness level to DEFCON-3, which means that fighter planes were armed with nuclear bombs. During this time, the U.S. continued with a scheduled U-2 flight into the arctic to collect air samples. Unfortunately, the U-2 got off track and ended up in Russian airspace. The Russians sent fighter jets to protect their airspace, and the U.S. (as was policy) sent fighter planes to protect the U-2 aircraft. However, since they were at DEFCON-3, the planes were armed with nuclear warheads. Luckily, the U-2 exited Russian airspace before any fighting took place and before a random collection of normal processes could lead to the U.S. using nuclear bombs over Russian territory. There are quite a few examples of similar near-fatal mistakes caused by organizational processes on both the Russian and U.S. side.

The third framework, Model II, was a Governmental Behavior Model. This model focuses on the individuals that took part in the decision making – who were they, why did they get to take part, what information or biases did they have, and how influential were they in the decision-making process? It focuses on trying to understand the decisions made based on the details of the individuals and the structures for interaction that were in play. It emphasizes that actions may not be the result of one monolithic entity considering its objectives and choosing the most rational action, but rather of many people with different objectives, information, and estimates of outcomes discussing and often compromising on an action that doesn’t precisely match any one person’s thought process. For example, Kennedy put together a committee of advisors, including his national security advisor, the head of the state department, the head of the DoD, and other acting government leaders, but also a former ambassador to Russia, a retired State Department administrator, and others. The unique information, points of view, and past interactions of these various players had a significant effect on the choices made. Using transcripts of tapes of the White House discussions, the book shows the debating and decision-making process, including how various members of the discussion brought up ideas, changed sides, and fused their ideas together. Kennedy nearly chose to carry out an air strike on Cuba rather than a blockade, and even given the blockade option, he and others debated on whether to offer negotiations with Russia or to give them an ultimatum.

Overall, the book stresses that it is important to be aware of the type of framework being used when examining an issue of foreign policy, or even examining decisions made or actions taken by companies or other large groups. While they note that Model I is often useful for a first-effort understanding of an issue, it is often necessary to expand understanding to the operational procedures and political discussions underlying the action.

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