top of page

Understanding the Miscalculations in America’s Policy Towards Iraq

By Khushi Baldota


The decisions taken and the policy formulated by the members of the bureaucracy shape a country’s foreign policy, and for the members of the bureaucracy to assume a central position in the said process, a decentralized and collegial framework is a prerequisite. The absence of such a framework creates a conducive scenario for the process of ‘groupthink’ to gain momentum. Keeping this as the key theme, this short essay will explore America’s foreign policy and its decision towards Iraq in 2003. To study this, a domestic level of analysis with particular emphasis on the role of the bureaucracy will be adopted. This essay will outline the theoretical framework of groupthink and explain how it can contribute to understanding the events that triggered the foreign policy decision taken by the United States vis-à-vis Iraq, along with its outcomes.

Case Study:

The behaviour of the United States towards Iraq capriciously shifted from ‘cautious restraint’ to ‘accelerated urgency’, post the happenings of September 11, 2001. Prior to the attack of 9/11, the relationship between America and Iraq was marked by low-level hostilities wherein America imposed sanctions, oversight, no-fly zones and occasional strikes. Saddam Hussein, the then president of Iraq, was projected as a tyrant who symbolized a threat to the global landscape. However, no attempt of military invasion and regime change was rendered. Post 9/11, the grand strategy of the American foreign policy was extended to co-opt Iraq into the War on Terror, which refers to the military campaign led by the United States and its allies against regimes identified by them as terrorists. The Bush administration inflated the danger posed by Iraq and vociferously advocated that Saddam Hussein presented an existential threat to the security of the United States and its coalition allies (Hamilton 2004). The position taken by America was allegedly driven by the assertion that Iraq possessed active weapons of mass destruction, thus establishing a link between Iraq and terrorism. This misinformed rationale guided the US military invasion of Iraq in 2003, which is emblematic of an ideational shift and a significant policy departure.

The ‘groupthink’ model can be deployed to understand the shift in the administration’s view of the Iraqi dictator and decode the decision-making process that led to the military invasion of Iraq. Juxtaposed to studying foreign policy as an isolated event, it considers the historical context of the decision makers’ views which remains critical to providing a nuanced understanding of how these dispositions and trends inform a country’s global response. (Kuperman 2006). This model of groupthink was pioneered by the social scientist Irving Janis in 1972, upon the observation of a certain group dynamic where conformity and homogeneity of the decision were encouraged under pressure. In the context of political decision making, this conceptual model was used to understand distorted and failed policy processes that are known to usher in group environments commonly. It is a syndrome that occurs when the pressure to reach a consensus supersedes the group’s objectives (Morin and Paquin 2018). The concurrence seeking behaviour causes members to suppress their differences. Members of the group recalibrate their position and rhetoric as a function of the interactions that transpire within a group. Non-conforming views from within and information from outside sources that might challenge the group’s judgment and inherent morality are discounted. In his book Victims of Groupthink: A Psychological Study of Foreign Policy Decisions and Fiascoes, Janis says that the phenomenon of groupthink and the accompanying conformity brings on ‘deterioration of mental efficiency, reality testing and moral judgements that result from in-group pressures’ (Janis 1972:9). Thus, it reduces the ability of the members of the group to analyze events and formulate coherent individual positions. As a result of this dysfunctional group dynamic, flawed decisions are made even by experienced bureaucrats who succumb to the snare of groupthink.

Irving Janis highlights several factors that contribute to the emergence of this behaviour, some of which are: high levels of stress, weak or dominant leadership, an overestimation of a group’s capabilities, low self-esteem, a feeling of isolation, strong socio-cultural uniformity, concentrated sources of information and dubious decision-making methods. Such a behaviour can be observed by the following markers or symptoms: the illusion of unanimity and invulnerability, systematic justification of past mistakes through collective rationalization, a conviction in the group’s moral superiority, direct pressure on dissenters and repression of divergent opinions, self-censorship, tendency to stereotype those who do not belong to the group and the emergence of self-appointed ‘mind-guards’ (Janis 1972). When several of these symptoms are combined, the phenomenon of groupthink induces compliance and internalization, thereby contaminating the decision-making process. It leads to the failure of critical examination of relevant information, causing the decision-makers to conform with and settle on the policy preference advocated by the dominant leader of the group. Leadership style, traditional group procedures and behaviour are also used to understand the roots of faulty decision making (Circhlow and Schafer 1996). Scholars like Paul t’Hart revised this model and suggested that different pathways, instead of a single, could produce the same pathology. He highlights the role played by horizontal and vertical pressure along with intergroup conflict in the dynamics of groupthink (t’Hart 1990: 49). The same can be seen in the case of Iraq’s invasion and absorption into the War on Terror, along with the shift in perception of Saddam Hussein. The following segment explores the link between the aforementioned factors and America’s policy decision towards Iraq.

In the article, Groupthink, Iraq and the War on Terror: Explaining US Policy Shift toward Iraq, the author Dina Badie contends that stress, promotional leadership, and intergroup conflicts were the antecedents of groupthink in the case of American decision-makers. Before 9/11, bureaucrats of the Bush administration were divided on the strategy towards Iraq (Feith 2008). Post 9/11, members of the administration were under tremendous pressure to develop an effective foreign policy that would combat terrorism (Hamilton 2004). A policy directed towards military retribution, that would broaden the scope of the War on Terror and potentially include Iraq, was promoted by influential members of the core group- particularly President George W Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. After being propelled by the support from heavyweights in the decision0making process, some other members internalized the doctrine due to horizontal group pressure, need for conformity and avoidance of conflict. A fraction of the members of the policymaking group- such as the Secretary of State Colin Powell and CIA Director George Tenet- were sceptical of this proposition, but upon facing insurmountable pressure from above, which is essentially vertical pressure, they self-censored and aligned with the prevailing narrative. Ostensibly, the dissenters acquiesced to this pressure and altered their conception. This created a false image of unanimity and homogeneity in the foreign policy approach under deliberation. Badie says that ‘this led to the failure to survey the alternate courses of action following 9/11, a significant indicator of defective decision-making process’ (Badie 2010). The deindividualization, internalization of the premise and group cohesion led to a lack of debate and elevation of the perceived threat posed by Saddam Hussein.

The discord between the decision-makers and the intelligence community surfaced due to the failure of the latter to connect dots and predict events in the past, such as the 9/11 attack, that presented a serious blow to their legitimacy. This promoted the decision-makers to look inward for information. The data produced by the CIA exhibited no discernable link between Saddam Hussein and the terrorist groups (Tenet 2007). However, their assessment was deemed largely invalid and non-credible due to their prior intelligence failure of 2001. The distrust towards the CIA manifested in an absence of a critical evaluation of any information provided by them. Alongside, passive pressure was exerted on the intelligence analysts, which led them to produce inaccurate estimates, inconclusive evidence and censor the flow of data to conform with the view of the administration. The members of the administration were insulated from incongruent and contradictory perspectives, which allowed them to re-examine intelligence with the explicit purpose of corroborating their pre-existing beliefs. Due to the absence of external counsel and the inherent bias in information processing, they were able to fabricate a link between the terrorist networks and the capability of Saddam Hussein to share nuclear technology with them. Badie articulated that the “constant exposure to limited information created a perception of grave danger” (Badie 2010). This tainted evaluation process led the decision-making members to believe that incorporating Iraq into the War on Terror and establishing a link between the two was a logical extension of the strategy purportedly formulated before 9/11.

Under these conditions, groupthink was in full swing, and the risk posed by Saddam Hussein was falsely magnified leading to an ideational shift in the foreign policy architecture. America had long enjoyed the status of a hegemonic power in the international arena, which fostered the image of invulnerability. Due to this veneer of invulnerability, there was a lack of measures and resources directed to post-war planning and reconstruction in Iraq. In addition, there was a stereotyping of the enemy group, as posited by Janis in his theory. The bureaucratic members of the Bush administration conducted themselves under the guise of moral superiority which caused them to overlook potentially destructive outcomes and operational setbacks of their policy. Such failure is exemplified in the incorrect assessment of the threat posed by Saddam Hussein to the United States and its allies, and the lack of adequate planning for post-invasion Iraq. In sum, the process of groupthink is one where group concurrence overrides the focus on the issue to be addressed. The members of the bureaucracy become guided by the dominant rhetoric forged by underlying group consensus. In doing so, the decision-making process is plagued by the inability to critically assess information thereby resulting in the postulation of a flawed policy. Upon post-hoc knowledge, the absence of finding stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction or a pattern of cooperation between Saddam Hussein and al-Qaeda, we can effectively conclude that the bureaucrats were misguided in their decision-making (Esther 2005).


This model has been critiqued for being methodological and conjectural in nature with no reliable link between the group dynamics and foreign policy outcomes. Further, it is subject to selection bias by the researcher. It is imperative to acknowledge the limitations of the framework and its inability to make predictions or explain universal decision making. It is best suited to understand decisions made in cohesive and homogenous administrations (Vilde, 2015). The socio-psychological framings of the groupthink model make it truly unique in decrypting and elucidating the process of defective policy formulation and implementation. By studying the policy departure, it highlights the inconsistencies within the administration’s decisions and provides cogent reasons for the same. This level of analysis provides a rather complete picture of the interplay of different forces which have a pernicious influence on decision making. Thus, it proves to be a compelling lens to examine the miscalculations in America’s policy towards Iraq.

Reference List:

Badie, Dina. 2010. “Groupthink, Iraq and the War on Terror: Explaining US Policy Shift toward Iraq”. Foreign Policy Analysis, 6 (4): 277-296.

Feith, Douglas. 2008. War and Decision: Inside the Pentagon at the Dawn of the War on Terrorism. New York: Harper Collins.

Hamilton, William. 2004. “Bush Began to Plan the War Three Months After 9/11”. The Washington Post.

Irving, Janis. 1972. Victims of Groupthink: A Psychological Study of Foreign Policy Decisions and Fiascoes. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

Kuperman, Ranan D. 2006. “A Dynamic Framework for Analyzing Foreign Policy Decision Making”. International Studies Review, 8 (3): 537-544.

Morin, Jean-Frédéric., Paquin, Jonathan. 2018. Foreign Policy Analysis: A Toolbox. Germany: Springer International Publishing.

Pan, Esther. 2005. “Iraq: Justifying the War”. Council on Foreign Relations.

Rodin, Vilde. 2015. “Unknown Knowns: A Groupthink Model on the US Decision to go to War in Iraq”. E-International Relations.

Schafer, Mark and Scott Crichlow, 1996: “Antecedents of Groupthink: A Quantitive Study”, The Journal of Conflict Resolution, 40 (3): 415-435.

Tenet, George. 2007. At the Centre of the Storm: My Years at the CIA. New York: Harper Collins.

t’Hart, Paul. 1990. Groupthink in Government: A study of Small Groups and Policy Failure. Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press.

151 views0 comments


bottom of page