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Poliheuristic Decision-Making Analysis: President George W. Bush and the Decision to Invade Iraq

  • Published
  • By Major Jessica Foster

In March 2003, George W. Bush decided to invade Iraq, pledging to destroy Iraqi weapons of mass destruction (WMD) and end the dictatorial rule of Saddam Hussein. This decision by the Bush Administration has been analyzed with intense scrutiny across literature and various forms of media; however, none fully encapsulate the diversity involved with the decision-making, nor do they clarify the deeper underlying reasons. Two leading schools of thought are used to analyze or predict decisions, such as the Bush decision: Cognitive Theory and Rational Actor Theory. Cognitive Theory has several sub-schools, which generally focus on intuition, experience, and personal bias and assert that decision-making is unpredictable. The Rational Actor Theory posits that decision-makers are rational utility maximizers who make choices based on costs and benefits, asserting that decisions are predictable. The more recently established Poliheuristic Theory bridges the gap between these two schools by incorporating the cognitive and rational elements of choice into one analytical and predictive model. Thus, the Poliheuristic Theory of decision-making is the best framework to analyze George W. Bush’s historic decision to invade Iraq as it explains the cognitive and rational aspects involved in such a complex foreign policy environment.

Poliheuristic Decision-Making

Poliheuristic Theory transcends the divide between the cognitive and rationalist approaches to explaining foreign policy decisions. This theory encapsulates the diversity involved with decision-making, proposing that policymakers use a mixture of strategies, both cognitive and rational, when making decisions.[1] Specifically, Poliheuristic Theory postulates a two-stage decision process where the choices are narrowed initially by a non-compensatory analysis that eliminates certain options upfront by using one or more cognitive shortcuts. The decision-maker then evaluates the remaining alternatives to minimize risks and maximize benefits.[2] The first stage of Poliheuristic decision-making, non-compensatory analysis, primarily corresponds to the cognitive school of decision-making. The second stage involves the analytic processing of the remaining alternatives, which corresponds to the Rational Actor Theory. Cognitive heuristics are more critical in the first stage of the decision, whereas rational choice calculations are more applicable to the second stage of the Poliheuristic decision process.[3] However, even in the second stage, cognitive factors and personality traits are not entirely divorced; they can be interwoven in either step of the process, especially when applied to complex foreign policy decisions.

Poliheuristic can be broken down etymologically, with "poly" meaning many and "heuristic" meaning shortcuts. “Poli” also refers to the notion that political leaders measure gains and losses in political terms from outcomes of foreign policy.[4] This theory has the unique ability further explain those complicated foreign policy decisions as it accounts for multiple actors, multiple alternatives, and multiple dimensions. The Poliheuristic Theory is inherently built on the assumption that policymakers simplify complicated foreign policy decisions by initially using cognitive shortcuts and then applying an analytic decision calculus to arrive at a decision.[5] In essence, Poliheuristic Theory focuses on both the process of decision-making and the outcome of decisions and can explain why and how world leaders make decisions.

The Decision Environment

Before entering office, George W. Bush held firm views about how decisions should be made and how the decision-making process should be managed. He believed the best way to formulate policy was to surround himself with experts who would do the grunt work, with the final decision responsibility ultimately lying with him. Bush's background as the CEO of two companies and previous governor of Texas, as well as his experiences witnessing the inner workings of his father's presidency, attributed to this preference in decision-making strategy.[6] Bush’s decision-making style was also influenced by his inexperience in foreign policy. This lack of expertise forced him to look to others for advice, especially when the foreign policy decision was of higher complexity. It should be noted that he was not wholly ignorant of foreign policy. Before taking office, tutors, such as Paul Wolfowitz (U.S. Deputy Secretary of Defense) and other noteworthy advisors, educated Bush on foreign policy.[7] However, the effect of Bush’s tutelage was that he was indoctrinated into the views held by his advisors. Thus, these advisors could anticipate his willingness to accept courses of action and shape decision outcomes to their desires.

In addition to his decision-making style, Bush's background also influenced his management style. Bush believed that the decision-making process needed to occur within an environment modeled on a corporate design, where there was a clear and ordered hierarchy, and the roles among advisors were delineated and defined.[8] This formalistic leadership style created a decision-making environment in which divisions emerged among members of the advisory group. These divisions directly affected what information Bush received from his advisors. The outcome of this process was the development of bureaucratic politics, consequently limiting the scope of deliberations among the advisers and the President.[9]

The Road to War

In 2002, general intelligence, including the development of the National Intelligence Estimate on Iraq’s Continuing Programs for Weapons of Mass Destruction, strongly alluded to the idea that Iraq was secretly creating nuclear weapons.[10] The Bush Administration began to build a case that the United States must act preemptively to change Iraq’s ruling regime.[11] The United Nations (UN) Security Council agreed to a resolution requiring Saddam Hussein to disclose information on the development of WMDs and allow inspections of various locations in Iraq. After Iraq failed to demonstrate full cooperation and voluntary disarmament, President Bush issued an ultimatum for Saddam Hussein to leave Iraq or face military force.[12] On 19 March 2003, after Saddam Hussein refused to surrender, a coalition force led by the United States invaded Iraq. The assertions that Iraq possessed WMDs and had active ties to terrorist groups formed the core of the Administration’s case for invading Iraq.[13] Being that there was already a heightened fear of terrorist attacks on the homeland after 9/11, the Administration’s argument was sufficient to mobilize public and congressional support for a war that otherwise would have been nearly impossible to sell.[14] This high level of support did not materialize internationally; regardless, Bush still went forth with the invasion.[15]

The invasion of Iraq under Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF) was designed using a comprehensive air and ground campaign to quickly and decisively eliminate the Baathist leadership, leading to the total collapse of the rule in the country and the ultimate surrender or death of Saddam. Coalition forces were, in fact, able to swiftly topple Saddam Hussein's regime and capture Iraq's major cities with few casualties. On 1 May 2003, President Bush announced the end of major combat operations, and US forces captured Saddam later that year; however, insurgency and guerilla warfare ensued for years after the initial success of the invasion.[16]

Decision Analysis

The Poliheuristic Theory, as explained above, breaks down the decision into two stages. Both stages are focused on dimensions of decision used to measure options. One or more dimensions will be non-compensatory, resulting in the elimination of options in stage one. In stage two, the remaining alternatives are scored through the dimensions.[17] When a national leader faces the decision to go to war, the most common options fall into four broad categories illustrated in this analysis: isolationism (do nothing), military containment (blockade), sanctions (economic coercion), and use of force (invasion/decapitation).[18] The four dimensions used in this analysis are also common among world leaders when considering the options: political, economic, diplomatic, and military.[19]

The first stage eliminates alternatives based on one or more non-compensatory dimensions.[20] As is usually seen in foreign policy decisions, the political dimension of Bush’s decision-making framework was most salient, making it most susceptible to non-compensatory factors.[21] Examples of the political non-compensatory heuristics that guide the initial elimination of options are threats to a leader’s political survival and political constraints.[22] In the Bush case, domestic politics specific to political survival was the essence of the decision. The extreme importance of this dimension is consistent with the Poliheuristic framework and was seen throughout Bush’s presidency as he consistently expended vast amounts of political capital to secure domestic and Congressional support for his policies.[23] In other words, any choice that would threaten his chances for re-election calls for dismissal in the first stage. Since the American public was recently sensitized to the horrors of terrorism, choosing the option of isolationism (doing nothing) would have detrimental results on his chances of re-election the following year. In fact, the vast majority of Americans favored intervention regarding Iraq.[24] Thus, stage one concludes by dismissing isolationism as a course of action.

The second stage of Poliheuristic decision-making is where the decision-maker performs a cost-benefit analysis with any leftover options. Now that isolationism is off the table, the comparison of the leftover options (containment, sanctions, and use of force) through weighted dimensions begins. As mentioned, cognitive factors are not entirely divorced from stage two; they play a role in the weighting of dimensions prior to the rational expected utility comparison. In the Bush decision, the political and military dimensions were weighted higher than the economic and diplomatic dimensions. The non-compensatory factors in stage one explain the higher weight of the political dimension. The higher weight of the military dimension was partially due to his foreign policy inexperience and the structure of his decision-making organization. Bush's Deputy Secretary of Defense, Paul Wolfowitz, had already tutored the President in foreign policy, which alone influenced President Bush's valuing of the military dimension. Furthermore, due to the formalistic organizational structure, the President had limited interaction with members other than the advisors with whom he was closest.[25] The military proponents and advisors, Paul Wolfowitz, Vice President Dick Cheney, and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld took advantage of their proximity, strongly enabling them to influence the outcomes of President Bush’s decisions.[26] At the same time, other advisors could not even get the President's ear; even Secretary of State Colin Powell became isolated in the administration and had little ability to share his negative views on the use of force in Iraq.[27] This close-keeping of the President created biases and dependency on military advisors in his decision-making, thus making the military dimension carry more weight in stage two.

As mentioned in the first stage, the political dimension was most salient, causing the elimination of the isolation option. However, further analysis in this dimension with the remaining options is required. Along with the public desire to merely intervene regarding Iraq, two out of three Americans advocated for going to war with Iraq.[28] Thus, the use of force option scored highly in this dimension as it would produce a significant political benefit. Because civilian financial burden can occur with economic sanctions, the resulting concern of political backlash rendered a low score for that option.[29] Lastly, the containment option would involve military action as desired by the American public, but not as overtly as an invasion; hence its medium score in this dimension.

Further exploring the military dimension, the U.S. had the premiere military power. Therefore, Bush had little doubt that the US could easily win a military campaign against Iraq.[30] In this respect, and the fact that an easy win would display the primacy of the U.S. military, the use of force option scored highly in this dimension. Of course, risk to force would be a concern with this course of action; however, Bush had confidence that US forces could accomplish the invasion with few casualties.[31] Containment would display the U.S. military capabilities on the world stage; however, it would be much more prolonged with a higher risk to mission, and successful results would not be as overt. Thus, it receives a medium score in the military dimension. Although the risk to force would be low, sanctions would not display military power to the international audience. Additionally, the risk to mission would be higher, resulting in a low score for sanctions in the military dimension.

Regarding the economic dimension, Bush believed that the U.S. military would be able to quickly overthrow Hussein and rehabilitate his country at little financial cost.[32] Since the costly and prolonged insurgency did not manifest itself until after the interstate hostilities seized, the use of force option scored highly in the economic dimension at the time of decision-making. Containment would call for fewer military resources; however, it would be more prolonged and, therefore, more costly, causing a lower score economically. Sanctions do not usually have high upfront costs; however, the long-term costs are tangible. Thus, sanctions scored medium in the economic dimension.

In the diplomatic dimension, the use of force scores very low due to the lack of international support.[33] On the other hand, containment and sanctions would receive higher scores in the diplomatic dimension. However, as previously noted, Bush's closest advisors favored military action regardless of diplomatic consequences. Furthermore, the advisor concerned most with diplomatic issues, Secretary of State Powell, was sidelined and, therefore, unable to adequately share his insight. Consequently, the diplomatic dimension was not considered critical by George W. Bush, as evidenced by his ultimate decision to invade Iraq without UN support.[34] As such, the differing diplomatic scores were largely irrelevant in this decision.

Overall, the use of force scored the highest as the preferred option. This is because the non-compensatory political factors eliminated isolationism in stage one, while in stage two the use of force scored highest in the economic and higher-weighted political and military dimensions. Use of force scored lowest in the diplomatic dimension; however, the lack of importance tied to this dimension means that Bush's decision did not hinge on diplomatic scores.


President George W. Bush's decision to invade Iraq has been singled out for its many shortcomings, including its lack of debate among the Administration concerning all options.[35] However, regardless of whether the decision itself was questionable, many factors shaped the decision-making environment and influenced the outcome, which lends the decision to analysis through the Poliheuristic Theory. Poliheuristic Theory posits that decision-makers use a two-stage process in which cognitive and rational factors contribute to both the narrowing of options and the ultimate choice. George W. Bush’s desire to maintain or improve his political status contributed heavily to the non-compensatory decision in stage one. In addition, his individual traits, organizational preference, lack of experience, and influence from advisors all contributed to the weighting of dimensions. Finally, he rationally approached the remaining options in an effort to maximize benefits at the lowest cost in stage two, ultimately leading to the decision to invade Iraq. Thus, as demonstrated through exhaustive analysis, President Bush's decision to invade Iraq in 2003 was made through both cognitive and rational choice, encompassing the very process that Poliheuristic Theory postulates as being dominant in foreign policy decision-making.


Major Jessica Foster
Maj Foster is an Air University Fellow and the Director of Operations of the 32nd Student Squadron at Squadron Officer School. She holds a BA in Criminal Justice from Saint Louis University. She is also a graduate of Air Command and Staff College where she earned a master’s degree in Military Operational Art and Science. During that time, she studied decision-making analysis at the strategic level, which she greatly enjoyed, and would like to share her thoughts on Poliheuristic Theory and its dominance in foreign policy decision-making. 

 This paper was written as part of Prof. Bradley Podliska's Battles and Leaders elective at ACSC.


[1]. Alex Mintz. “How Do Leaders Make Decisions? A Poliheuristic Perspective,” Journal of Conflict Resolution 48, no. 1 (February 2004), 4.

[2]. Ibid., 3.

[3]. Ibid., 4.

[4]. Ibid., 6.

[5]. Ibid., 8.

[6]. David Mitchell and George Massoud Tansa. “Anatomy of Failure: Bush’s Decision-Making Process and the Iraq War.” Foreign Policy Analysis 5, no. 3 (2009), 272.

[7]. Ibid., 272-73.

[8]. Fred I. Greenstein, “The Contemporary Presidency: The Changing Leadership of George W. Bush: A Pre- and Post-9/11 Comparison,” Presidential Studies Quarterly 32, no. 2 (2002), 392.

[9]. Mitchell and Tansa, “Anatomy of Failure,” 272.

[10]. 108th Congress, “U.S. Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, Report on the U.S. Intelligence Community's Pre-War Intelligence Assessments on Iraq,” S. Report 108-301, 2d Session (2004), 93.

[11]. U.S. Library of Congress, Congressional Research Service, Iraq: Former Regime Weapons Programs and Outstanding U.N. Issues, by Kenneth Katzman, RL32379 (2009), 3.

[12]. Ibid., 4.

[13]. Ibid., 4.

[14]. Jeffrey Record, “Why the Bush Administration Invaded Iraq: Making Strategy after 9/11.” Strategic Studies Quarterly 2, no. 2 (2008), 65.

[15]. Albert L. Weeks, The Choice of War: The Iraq War and the Just War Tradition (Santa Barbara CA: Praeger Security International, 2009), 118-19.

[16]. “War in Iraq Begins,”, (November 24, 2009), (accessed 1 December 2022).

[17]. Mintz, “How Do Leaders Make Decisions?,” 6.

[18]. Alex Mintz, Nehemia Geva, Steven B. Redd, and Amy Carnes, “The Effect of Dynamic and Static Choice Sets on Political Decision Making: An Analysis Using the Decision Board Platform,” The American Political Science Review 91, no. 3 (1997), 563.

[19]. Ibid., 557.

[20]. Mintz, “How Do Leaders Make Decisions?,” 1.

[21]. Ibid., 6-7.

[22]. Ibid., 3.

[23]. Marc O'Reilly and Wesley Renfro, “Like Father, Like Son? A Comparison of the Foreign Policies of George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush,” Historia Actual (2009), 32.

[24]. Ibid., 28.

[25]. Mitchell and Tansa, “Anatomy of Failure,” 267.

[26]. David C. Gompert, Hans Binnendijk, and Bonny Lin, Blinders, Blunders, and Wars: What America and China Can Learn (Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation, 2014), 166.

[27]. Mitchell and Tansa, “Anatomy of Failure,” 275.

[28]. Richard Morin and Claudia Deane, “Most Support Attack On Iraq, With Allies,” The Washington Post (February 2003), 3.

[29]. Edward Fishman, “Even Smarter Sanctions: How to Fight in the Era of Economic Warfare,” Foreign Affairs (November/December 2017), 103-05.

[30]. O'Reilly and Renfro, “Like Father, Like Son?,” 32.

[31]. Record, “Why the Bush Administration Invaded Iraq,” 80.

[32]. O'Reilly and Renfro, “Like Father, Like Son?,” 32.

[33]. Weeks, “Some Conclusions," 118-19.

[34]. O'Reilly and Renfro, “Like Father, Like Son?,”  33.

[35]. Mitchell and Tansa, “Anatomy of Failure,” 265-66.

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