Paul Pillar

How Obama Decides

President Obama's decision last week on troop withdrawals from Afghanistan has provided grist for commentary about how Mr. Obama makes policy and whether that process has changed. There has been the inevitable Kremlinology-style analysis about who in the administration is up and who is down, with some concluding that Vice President Biden's stock must have risen. Others have noted how much more quickly the president made the decision on Afghanistan he announced last week than the one he reached after a months-long policy review in 2009, and have concluded that the president is now relying more on his “instincts.”

I don't have any direct access to current decision-making in the White House, but such lines of analysis seem mistaken based on what we can see from the outside. The newest decision on Afghanistan was not the reversal that some have portrayed it as. As I noted last week, Mr. Obama's decision a year and a half ago, which incorporated both a surge and a starting date for a withdrawal, carefully left him freedom to go in different possible directions now, depending on the military and political conditions both in Afghanistan and in Washington. He could have chosen to go in a different direction from the one he did, but the fact he did not doesn't constitute a change of policy. As for deciding more quickly this time, that is an understandable consequence of having asked all the questions and heard out all the advisers the previous time; there was no point in repeating all that.

Instincts have played a significant role in presidential decision-making, but much less so with Mr. Obama than with some other recent presidents—especially his immediate predecessor, George W. Bush. Bush would size up a foreign leader by looking him in the eye and seeing his soul, or whatever he thought he was seeing. When listening to officials in his own government, his principal focus was less on the substance of what the person was saying than on what his own gut was telling him about the person's reason for saying it. Ronald Reagan also was a pretty instinctive president, with his posture toward the Soviet Union guided in large part by his inbred sense of the Soviet system's vulnerabilities and weaknesses in comparison with the United States. Sometimes instincts turn out to be mostly correct and policies based on them turn out to be largely successful, as was the case with Reagan and the Soviet Union. Other times they turn out to be wrong on important matters, as was the case with Bush.

When a president makes a decision that cannot be attributed to any one piece of information laid before him, or to the influence of any one adviser, or to the outcome of a vote of many advisers, this might be an instance of instinct governing the decision, but not necessarily. It might instead be an exercise of judgment in the face of unavoidable uncertainty about the situation he confronts and/or unavoidable conflict among different objectives and different values, which is exactly the kind of judgment that on major national issues only the president can and should make. The two types of decision are very different. One can get a sense of which type of decision-making it is by looking at any preceding effort, or lack of effort, to gather relevant information and insights. In George W. Bush's administration, not only the president but also the neoconservatives who came to dominate security policy exhibited an arrogance that consciously rejected expertise and insights, from either inside or outside the government. Barack Obama's laboriously long policy review on Afghanistan two years ago was the antithesis of that approach.

Obama's decision to attempt the raid that killed Osama bin Laden was another instance of exercising judgment after efforts to find out all that could be found out still left significant uncertainty. It wasn't a matter of trusting the CIA director or any one adviser, and it wasn't a matter of trusting his instincts.

A sound decision-making process does not guarantee a favorable result. The raid at Abbottabad, for example, might have come up empty (and still antagonized the Pakistanis). And Obama has sometimes strayed from a sound process (the entry into the conflict in Libya probably being an example). But overall his approach to making major decisions—which, as E.J. Dionne observes, bears some resemblance to that of George H.W. Bush—has been one of the better ones among recent presidents.