In his new book, Decision Points, former president George Bush, provides interesting insights into his decision in March 2003 to initiate Operation Iraqi Freedom. He wrote this book in part so we can all learn from his experiences in making complex decisions. As he stated a letter to his father, in launching this attack he hoped to accomplish two things: to liberate Iraq and rid the country of Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD).
The president actually initiated this decision almost 18 months earlier, a couple of months after 9/11, by asking the department of defense to review and update battle plans for Iraq. He then spent more time trying to convince others to support it than he did evaluating the decision.
His decision rested on the critical assumption that Saddam Hussein had stockpiles of WMD. He didn’t. Experts searched the country and by the end of 2003 it was clear that there were none. The intelligence evidence behind WMD was incorrect. The former president admits his surprise, “No one was more shocked or angry than I was when we didn’t find the weapons. I had a sickening feeling every time I thought of it. I still do.” This was the most critical assumption in his decision; in fact the entire decision rested upon this assumption. In his book, the former president reiterates how widespread he felt this assumption was, “Almost a decade later, it is hard to describe how widespread an assumption it was that Saddam had WMD.”
The assumption of WMD was circumstantial. President Bush concluded the assumption was real based on the logic that, “If Saddam didn’t have WMD, why wouldn’t he just prove it to the inspectors?” Ergo, he must have them and is hiding them. Part of this explanation came after his capture when he told FBI agents that he was more worried about looking weak to Iran than being removed by the coalition.
There are a couple of lessons in this decision. The most obvious is that you must understand that correct decisions rest on accurate assumptions, and if the assumption is critical to the decision, you must do whatever is necessary to proof it before you rely on it. For a decision this big, the WMD needed to be conclusive, not circumstantial. In the Cuban missile crisis, President Kennedy had conclusive proof of ballistic missiles being installed in Cuba before he acted, and even then he didn’t invade Cuba.
Another lesson is to make major decision like this rigorously, not informally. There is no indication that the president and administration made this decision rigorously enough to the extent justified by a decision of this magnitude. The cost of the Iraq war is estimated to be more than $2.5 trillion, including the interest cost on the money borrowed that must be repaid by future generations. The cost in American lives is in the thousands, and the cost in other lives is even greater. Had the decision process been more rigorous, I believe the potential cost would have focused my attention on the validity of the critical assumption.
My intent here is not to pass judgment on the decision itself; some believe it was a correct decision and others condemn it. My intent is to use the former president’s book and his candid exposure of his decision process as a learning case study – and it give us a lot to think about.