The Essence of Decision, A Book Analysis – part ii

For part i of this essay, click here.

Chapter 2, Cuba II: A First Cut, is Allison’s analysis of the missile crisis from the Model I perspective. In his opinion, this event was the closest the world had ever come to nuclear war, and given the arsenals of the two countries involved, such a war would probably have ended up in annihilating… everything. To implement the paradigm, he breaks the crisis down to three questions for analysis:

Why did the Soviets place the missiles in Cuba?
Why did the US respond to this action with a naval blockade?
Why did the Soviets then withdraw the missiles?

In September of 1962, the Soviets made it clear to the US government, through confidential messaging, that they had no intention of complicating international matters during the election campaign, as there were off-year Congressional election that November. They also made clear, having never placed strategic missiles outside of the USSR, that wouldn’t use a third-party country for strategic purposes. The Kennedy administration, noticing shipments of materiel to Cuba, made a public statement that acknowledged this, but made a clear distinction between defensive and offensive weaponry, stating that the latter would be deemed a “gravest issue” . US intelligence then made the famous “September Estimate” that deemed the buildup in Cuba to be of the defensive sort. On October 14, the US discovered offensive missiles in Cuba, and was shocked that the Soviets could have disregarded the rhetorical warnings from the Kennedy Administration .

Model I analysis allowed for five hypotheses for the Soviet move. First, that it was done to barter the US into removing missiles from Turkey. Allison states that this was doubtful according to a rational-actor analysis, because the types and number of missiles in Cuba were disproportionate to what was in Turkey, and that the US was already trying to remove those missiles (ironically, Kennedy already thought they were out. He’d ordered them removed twice). The second theory was that they were baiting the US into attacking Cuba, and since the missiles were unknown, that it would make the US an international pariah. This was cast aside, because there was no way to know the US would follow through. Third, was that the missiles were deployed to defend Cuba. This was deemed probable, especially in the wake of the Bay of Pigs incident, but the makeup of the missile deployment was excessive for defense purposes. A fourth theory was that it was a Soviet probe of American will, and although some Model I theorists viewed this as possible, it was dismissed because if the US stood firm the Soviets were at a clear disadvantage in the Caribbean. The fifth, and most plausible, was that the Soviets were seeking to gain nuclear launching ability in the Western Hemisphere, and the deployment to Cuba doubled their “first-strike” capability against the United States mainland .

At this point, Allison highlights the limitations of Model I. A closer examination of the timeline of events did not support the implementation of a specific plan. Other inconsistencies, such as the lack of camouflage on the missile sites, also called each of the Rational-Actor hypotheses into serious question. The Soviets had to expect US surveillance flights since they had just shot down, and recovered, a U-2 spy plane in the Soviet Union . If the Soviets were making rational decisions, this would have been factored into their plan. Finally, Kennedy’s repeated warnings in the media had to have been known to the Soviets. Allison shows, quite effectively, that Model I, though illuminating, is a severely limited paradigm when information is available and scrutinized, which it was in this seminal event.

Next, he examines how the US settled upon the blockade through the prism of Model I. Once the missiles were discovered, Kennedy convened an Executive Committee (ExCom) of advisors to steer the US response. They came up with six options: do nothing, pursue diplomatic channels, approach Castro, invade Cuba, a “surgical air strike,” and a naval blockade of the island. Each had its drawbacks. Here, Allison shows how the ExCom members weighed the pros and cons of each course of action, and more importantly, how they applied Model I thinking to theorize on the possible Soviet responses to each action. They were wary of escalation into a nuclear conflict, but also wanted to take a strong stance to show the Soviets they wouldn’t acquiesce to nuclear warheads coming into the Western hemisphere. By applying the logic of Model I, the blockade was the only viable course of action in terms of maximizing US interests and avoiding nuclear war . The application of subsequent models shows this explanation to be wanting.

The last segment of the “first cut” examines the Soviet decision on Sunday, October 28, to withdraw the missiles from the island. To military analysis, the decision was simple in that the United States possessed total strategic and tactical advantage in the region, and the blockade showed the Soviets that acquiescence was an option. Again, Allison shows that a closer look at the evidence exposes Model I as insufficient. He notes that this explanation assumes that the blockade “worked,” but it seems more plausible the Soviets used the blockade as a delaying tactic to complete the rest of the missile sites, which is what they did . The “blockade worked” explanation ignored the massive troop buildup that Kennedy ordered in Florida, constituting an implicit threat of military action against the island, but even this explanation falls short. Allison combed through Congressional testimony, and quoted Secretary of Defense McNamara, who said that the threat that we would invade Cuba in a conventional action was conveyed to Khrushchev explicitly, and that this was the only reason the weapons were withdrawn. Model I is most successful in explaining this part of the crisis, because Robert Kennedy did in fact send a message through Foreign Minister Dobrynin directly to Khrushchev, telling him that the US would strike the following Tuesday. Without more information from the inner workings of the Soviet government, this explanation seems to square with all the available information.

Next is Allison’s explanation of Model II, which is organizational theory. Part of the problem, or limitation, of Model I is that governments are not actually unitary actors, and their actions are outputs not of a rational individual, but of large organizations. Organizational theory, at the time the book was written, was still a relatively young area of study, and Allison notes that there isn’t much literature for him to reference. So he uses economic theory, and the language of this discipline to look at government from an organizational perspective. In the chapter’s endnotes, Allison says that while organizational theory is new, it descends from two older disciplines . One is Max Weber and his theory of bureaucracy, and this is important to understanding the decisions of organizations for three reasons. First, the notion of task specialization is a vital component of understanding how governments function (military’s role, political leaders, etc.). Second, the issue of hierarchical coordination is important in terms of understanding the delegation of authority, and carrying out of orders. This is particularly true in the case of the missile crisis. The third contribution of Weber is the bureaucracy’s rigid reliance on written rules, or standard operating procedures (SOPs). This reliance is important both inside the organization (so its agents know how to handle situations) as well as outside the organization (so others have confidence in how the organization will react in a given situation). A second “parent” of organizational theory is the “scientific management” theory of F.W. Taylor. Taylor sought to make management a field of scientific study, and stressed the mutual symbiotic relationship between management and labor as vital to efficiency. Both of these theories were rigid in their application, and relied on rational actors to be effective. Organizational theory, according to Allison, developed as a response to this rigidity, because studies of bureaucracies at the time had shown them to be ineffective models for viewing the real world .

Another problem with the rational choice models is their employment of “comprehensive rationality,” which states that the “economic” actor makes a choice based on the consideration of all possible choices, every one of their possible consequences, and the evaluation of the utility or debit of each consequence . In a purely theoretical sense this may be possible, but organizational theory acknowledges this isn’t possible for real-world actors. Here, Allison borrows from the work of Herbert Simon, and his concept of administrative decision making. Simon argues for a notion of “bounded rationality”, which acknowledges that the “physical and psychological limits of man’s capacity as alternative generator, information processor, and problem solver constrain the decision making processes of individuals and organizations” . Actors are “intendedly rational,” in that they aim to act rationally, but due to the fact that they can’t account for every premise, they are limited in their choices. Organizational decisions then, instead of being the rational maximization choice, are the result of organization’s consideration of their goals, expectations and choices, as they see them. Here he once again borrows from Simon, by stressing the notion of “satisficing,” which replaces maximization, that holds that individuals (and for Allison, organizatons) will choose that which is “good enough” out of their limited options .


2 thoughts on “The Essence of Decision, A Book Analysis – part ii

  1. Pingback: The Cuban Missile Crisis, A Book Analysis – part iii | Lone Wolf Musings

  2. Pingback: The Cuban Missile Crisis, A Book Analysis – part iv | Lone Wolf Musings

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