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Cooling It

These, Allison argues, are limited ways of thinking and fail to describe the way things really happen. To counter such myopia he suggests two other “conceptual lenses” or models. The first he calls Organizational Process, by which he means that governments are not single cohesive bodies but a collection of groups with interests of their own. “Governmental behavior,” he writes in a sentence typical of the book’s style, “can therefore be understood…less as deliberate choices and more as outputs of large organizations functioning according to standard patterns of behavior.”

Setting aside the outputs, he then proposes another way of looking at evidence, which is really the one closest to his heart. This he calls Model III, or Governmental Politics; maneuverings by individuals within the bureaucracy. “The name of the game,” he says in a cliché endemic to his field, “is politics: bargaining along regularized circuits among players positioned hierarchically within the government.” Or in other words, decisions result from infighting among the participants. To use Allison’s own words to distinguish the three “models,” “What moves the chess pieces is not simply the reasons that support a course of action, or the routines of organizations that enact an alternative, but the power and skill of proponents and opponents of the action in question.”

While most of his book is even denser than the preceding sentence, it contains some interesting material on bureaucratic politics, which is, after all, the product Allison is selling. It is not really a new product, having been developed in the 1950s by Gabriel Almond and Charles Lindblom, and blossomed with Richard Neustadt’s Presidential Power, which not only caught the attention of John F. Kennedy but launched a whole growth industry in political science. Neustadt, who until recently was head of the Kennedy School, describes his 1970 study of Suez and Skybolt, Alliance Politics, as a “crude first cut” of Allison’s Model III. This approach to political decision-making can also be found in the writings of such scholars as Robert Dahl, Warner Schilling, Roger Hilsman, Samuel Williamson, and Samuel Huntington. A fascination with the internal workings of bureaucracies has not only spawned a whole literature but has virtually supplanted the study of history among students of political science.

The main point of Allison’s argument is that crucial decisions really come from the tug of personalities and groups within the bureaucracy rather than from rational choices made by individuals and translated into national policy. As an example he focuses on the deliberations in the ExCom—the small group of advisers Kennedy assembled to deal with the crisis—over the question of an air strike to destroy the missile bases. Allison cites the disagreements within this group—McNamara favoring a do-nothing approach, McGeorge Bundy originally suggesting a private diplomatic approach to Khrushchev, the Joint Chiefs and the civilian hawks like Acheson and McCone arguing for an immediate attack. He tries to show that there was no consensus and that the compromise decision to impose a blockade emerged from tugging and pulling within the ExCom. One of the major reasons that Kennedy rejected an immediate air strike in favor of a blockade, he suggests, is that his brother, Sorensen, and McNamara strongly urged the more moderate blockade that would “maintain the options,” and that the Air Force could not guarantee that a “surgical” strike would take out all the missile bases.

However, he makes it clear that Kennedy never had the slightest interest in a nonmilitary approach of the kind suggested by McNamara or Bundy: “The record leaves no doubt that from the outset he [Kennedy] was determined to act forcefully.” Why? Because, according to Allison, a failure to do so would undermine confidence among his subordinates, encourage bureaucrats to challenge his policies, imperil the chances of Democrats at the congressional elections only three weeks away, destroy his reputation in Congress, create public distrust of his will, cause foreigners to doubt his courage and commitments, invite a second Bay of Pigs, and feed doubts in his own mind about himself. “The nonforcible paths,” Allison states, “avoiding military measures, resorting instead to diplomacy—could not have been more irrelevant to his problem.”

While this sounds plausible, it actually reveals two flaws in Allison’s reasoning. First, what he has presented are not reasons for Kennedy’s behavior, but explanations. Having chosen to use force, Kennedy used these as justifications for his decision. But he could have chosen not to use force and found equally compelling justifications. To say that the avoidance of military measures was irrelevant to Kennedy’s problem is to skirt the real issue—which is why he perceived the situation in such a way as to preclude a diplomatic solution. Second, if Kennedy was determined to use force from the outset, then all the tugging and pulling within the ExCom did not make a great difference to the outcome. He consistently overruled the Joint Chiefs in military matters—like changing the 800-mile quarantine to 500 miles and not retaliating against the attack on a U-2 from the SAM bases—and the civilian advisers with whom he disagreed. “Arguments in the ExCom for and against military tracks,” Allison observes,

involved different estimates, interpretations, and matters of judgment. Indeed, in retrospect, an analyst weighing all available argument could decide either way. But, as Sorensen’s record of these events reveals, the rapid abandonment of the nonmilitary path resulted less from the balance of argument than from the intra-governmental balance of power. “The President had rejected this course from the outset.”

If that is the case—if the President decided on a forceful confrontation instead of inaction or a diplomatic approach, then the decision to impose a blockade and to postpone an air strike did not result from “organizational processes” or bureaucratic politics. It was Kennedy’s perceptions that determined the key decisions. Thus we end up right back at the Model I Rational Actor explanation.

This is not surprising, since much of what Allison tells us is not so new or so informative as we are led to believe. For example, after a couple of hundred pages of model-building we are still left very much in the dark about the central question of the crisis, which is why the Russians put the missiles in Cuba in the first place. Allison suggests a number of possibilities, but confesses that “it is embarrassingly easy to construct a large number of plausible accounts of this occurrence and extraordinarily difficult to distinguish among them.” This is quite true, but do we need the “conceptual lenses” of bureaucratic politics to show us that? No one expects Allison to know the innermost secrets of the Kremlin. But it hardly seems necessary to go through such an arduous exercise of model-building to confirm that “it is not possible to have high confidence in any single explanation” of what the Soviets were up to—which any Model I analyst could have told him all along.

While it may be true that the Rational Actor approach fails to take into account that “many crucial details of implementation followed from organizational routines rather than from central choice,” it hardly follows that “larger payoffs in the future will come from an intellectual shift of gears” into organizational and bureaucratic politics. Least of all is it persuasive that “we must move to a conception of happenings as events whose determinants are to be investigated according to the canons developed by modern science.”

While modern science may help us with many things, understanding the struggle of nations is not likely to be one of them. Politics is the interplay of human beings in groups, and thus among the most humanistic of studies. It can be analyzed, speculated upon, and dissected, but it is not a science and it is not subject to canons laid down in laboratories. The Rational Actor model, as Allison sets it up, rather in the fashion of a straw man, may fail to provide adequate explanation of the missile crisis, but so do his other two models, and even all three of them taken together.

He is quite right in warning us that those who believed that the steps leading to nuclear war could be precisely controlled, and thus saw the missile crisis as Kennedy’s “finest hour,” were oblivious of the deadly risks they were running. “Only barely,” Allison concludes, “did governmental leaders manage to control organizational programs that might have dragged us over the cliff.” He shows quite clearly that the “interaction of internal games, each as ill-understood as those in the White House and the Kremlin, could indeed yield nuclear war as an outcome.”

But having said this, Allison fails to show how a knowledge of bureaucratic politics is going to help very much in dealing with it. What is crucial, after all, is not bargaining games but the perception and understanding of political events. Allison, of course, disagrees, and believes that he has found a method of inquiry that is going to make all the others outmoded. In asking, “Where do we go from here?” he asserts,

American academic and professional thought about foreign affairs seems to have reached a hiatus. Strategic thought has made little progress…. Sovietology is just “more of the same.” The arms control literature has been coasting on ideas generated by the time of the summer study of 1960. The new wave of revisionist studies of American foreign policy turns traditional interpretations on their head without really increasing our understanding. Diplomatic history shows little life.

The problem with the study of bureaucratic politics that Allison proposes is not only that it tells us little that is new but, in emphasizing game-playing, it reduces political responsibility. Where everyone is responsible for a decision, no one is responsible. If politics is the result of bargaining games among players, neither the President nor the nation can be held responsible for the decisions made. If bureaucracies really run the show, what is the point of elections? What, in fact, is the meaning of politics? The bureaucratic state as conceived here represents the abdication of political responsibility by those empowered to make decisions. It is not surprising that such a theory should be appealing at a time when bureaucracies have infused not only government and business but the universities as well, and when the very concept of individual responsibility is under assault.

It is hard to disagree with the Kennedy quote from which Allison takes his title: “The essence of ultimate decision remains impenetrable to the observer—often, indeed, to the decider himself…. There will always be the dark and tangled stretches in the decision-making process—mysterious even to those who may be most intimately involved.” Tolstoy thought so too. But this does not, as Allison’s study implies, absolve the individual or the nation from responsibility for the decisions that are made. There is much more to politics than looking at a blackbird three different ways and concluding that “different conceptual lenses lead analysts to different judgments about what is relevant and important.” To be sure, they do. But the perceptions that lead to the decisions, as Richard Barnet has shown in his examination of the decision-making bureaucracy, Roots of War, are more pertinent and important than a study of how decisions are made; studies of bureaucracy which do not analyze and weigh such perceptions are little more than intellectual exercises, however “scientific” and interesting they may be.

This is what is disturbing about studies such as Allison’s and the impact they are having on the teaching of political science. It is not that their concern is unserious but rather that it is peripheral to the central question of political responsibility. In avoiding that question—indeed, implying that it does not exist—the architects of the study of bureaucratic politics are not, as Allison maintains, providing a “fundamental change in intellectual style” so much as they are offering a cool way out.

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