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The Decision Point: Six Cases in U.S. Foreign Policy Decision Making by David Patrick Houghton - A Critical Analysis


The Decision Point: Six Cases in U.S. Foreign Policy Decision Making by David Patrick Houghton




How do American leaders make decisions about foreign policy? What factors influence their choices and actions? How can we evaluate their performance and learn from their successes and failures? These are some of the questions that David Patrick Houghton, a professor of political science at The University of Central Florida, addresses in his book The Decision Point: Six Cases in U.S. Foreign Policy Decision Making. In this book, Houghton provides a comprehensive and accessible introduction to three basic theories of decision-making that he applies to six well-known historical cases that range from classic to contemporary: the Bay of Pigs invasion, the Cuban Missile Crisis, the Vietnam War, the Iran Hostage Crisis, the Persian Gulf War, and the Iraq War. By doing so, he aims to show students how real American foreign policy makers make real decisions, and how these decisions have shaped U.S. foreign policy history.




The Decision Point: Six Cases in U.S. Foreign Policy Decision Making David Patrick Houghton


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In this article, I will summarize and review Houghton's book, highlighting its main arguments, contributions, strengths, and limitations. I will also discuss some of the implications and lessons that we can draw from his analysis for our understanding of U.S. foreign policy decision making.


Theoretical Framework




Houghton begins his book by introducing three basic theories of decision-making that he uses throughout the book to explain and evaluate the six cases. These theories are: rational choice theory, cognitive theory, and bureaucratic politics theory. He defines each theory, explains its assumptions and logic, and compares and contrasts it with other approaches in the field. He also discusses the strengths and limitations of each theory, and how they can be combined or supplemented by other perspectives.


Rational choice theory is based on the idea that decision makers are rational actors who seek to maximize their expected utility or payoffs by choosing the best alternative among a set of options. This theory assumes that decision makers have clear and consistent preferences, full and accurate information, and the ability to calculate the costs and benefits of each option. Rational choice theory is often used to model strategic interactions among states or other actors in international relations, such as deterrence, bargaining, cooperation, or conflict. However, this theory also faces several criticisms, such as its unrealistic assumptions, its neglect of emotions, values, norms, and beliefs, its difficulty in explaining deviations from rationality or suboptimal outcomes, and its lack of attention to the process and context of decision making.


Cognitive theory is based on the idea that decision makers are boundedly rational actors who use mental shortcuts or heuristics to simplify complex problems and cope with uncertainty and ambiguity. This theory assumes that decision makers have limited information, time, and cognitive resources, and that they are influenced by psychological factors, such as perception, memory, learning, motivation, emotion, bias, and framing. Cognitive theory is often used to explain how decision makers interpret and process information, how they form and update their beliefs and expectations, how they deal with risk and uncertainty, and how they justify and rationalize their choices. However, this theory also faces several criticisms, such as its descriptive rather than prescriptive nature, its difficulty in testing and falsifying its claims, its reliance on hindsight bias and counterfactual reasoning, and its lack of attention to the role of institutions, organizations, and groups in decision making.


Bureaucratic politics theory is based on the idea that decision makers are political actors who pursue their own interests and agendas by bargaining and competing with other actors within a complex organizational system. This theory assumes that decision makers have diverse and conflicting preferences, goals, and values, that they have incomplete and asymmetric information, and that they are constrained by rules, norms, procedures, hierarchies, and coalitions. Bureaucratic politics theory is often used to explain how decision makers shape and are shaped by the institutional environment in which they operate, how they use power and influence to advance their positions, how they cope with uncertainty and ambiguity by relying on standard operating procedures or routines, and how they produce outcomes that reflect the result of compromise or coalition rather than optimal choice. However, this theory also faces several criticisms, such as its neglect of the role of individual personality, leadership, and creativity in decision making, its difficulty in accounting for change and innovation in organizational behavior, its tendency to overemphasize conflict and competition over cooperation and coordination, and its lack of attention to the external factors and feedback that affect decision making.


Case Studies




After presenting his theoretical framework, Houghton applies each of the three theories to six case studies that cover different regions, issues, and time periods in U.S. foreign policy history. He provides a detailed account of each case, highlighting its historical context and background, its main actors and events, its outcome and consequences, and its relevance and significance for U.S. foreign policy. He then analyzes each case from the perspective of each theory, explaining how each theory can help us understand the decision making process and outcome of each case, as well as its strengths and weaknesses in doing so. He also compares and contrasts the different explanations offered by each theory, and discusses some of the alternative or complementary perspectives that can be used to enrich our understanding of each case.


The Bay of Pigs Invasion (1961)




The first case study that Houghton examines is the Bay of Pigs invasion, a failed attempt by the U.S. to overthrow Fidel Castro's regime in Cuba in April 1961. This case is widely regarded as one of the worst fiascoes in U.S. foreign policy history, as it resulted in a humiliating defeat for the U.S., a major propaganda victory for Castro, and a deterioration of U.S.-Soviet relations.


Houghton explains this case using rational choice theory, cognitive theory, and bureaucratic politics theory. According to rational choice theory, the decision to invade Cuba was based on a flawed calculation of costs and benefits, overestimated the chances of success and the level of popular support for the invasion, and underestimated the risks and costs of failure and the strength and resolve of Castro's forces. According to cognitive theory, the decision to invade Cuba was influenced by several psychological biases and errors, such as groupthink, confirmation bias, wishful thinking, mirror imaging, and hindsight bias. According to bureaucratic politics theory, the decision to invade Cuba was shaped by the interests and agendas of various actors and organizations within the U.S. government, such as the CIA, the Pentagon, the State Department, and the White House, who competed for influence and resources, and who were constrained by norms and rules of secrecy, loyalty, and consensus.


Houghton concludes that none of the three theories can fully account for the decision to invade Cuba and its outcome, and that each theory has its own merits and limitations. He suggests that a more comprehensive and nuanced explanation would require combining these theories with other perspectives, such as historical institutionalism, organizational culture, leadership style, public opinion, and international context.


The Cuban Missile Crisis (1962)




The second case study that Houghton examines is the Cuban Missile Crisis, a tense confrontation between the U.S. and the Soviet Union over the deployment of Soviet nuclear missiles in Cuba in October 1962. This case is widely regarded as one of the most dangerous moments in human history, as it brought the world to the brink of nuclear war.


Houghton explains this case using rational choice theory, cognitive theory, and bureaucratic politics theory. According to rational choice theory, the decision to impose a naval blockade on Cuba was based on a careful calculation of costs and benefits, as the U.S. sought to deter and compel the Soviet Union to remove its missiles without escalating the crisis to a nuclear war. According to cognitive theory, the decision to impose a naval blockade on Cuba was influenced by several psychological factors, such as perception, framing, learning, motivation, emotion, and bias. According to bureaucratic politics theory, the decision to impose a naval blockade on Cuba was shaped by the interests and agendas of various actors and organizations within and outside the U.S. government, such as the Executive Committee of the National Security Council (ExCom), the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS), the CIA, the State Department, the United Nations (UN), and NATO, who bargained and cooperated with each other under conditions of uncertainty and urgency.


Houghton concludes that none of the three theories can fully account for the decision to impose a naval blockade on Cuba and its outcome, and that each theory has its own merits and limitations. He suggests that a more comprehensive and nuanced explanation would require combining these theories with other perspectives, such as game theory, crisis management theory, signaling theory, domestic politics theory, and international system theory.


The Vietnam War (1964-1975)




The third case study that Houghton examines is the Vietnam War, a prolonged and costly conflict between North Vietnam and South Vietnam, with the involvement of their allies, including the U.S., China, and the Soviet Union. This case is widely regarded as one of the most controversial and divisive wars in U.S. history, as it resulted in over 58,000 American deaths, millions of Vietnamese casualties, a stalemate on the battlefield, a loss of public support at home, and a withdrawal from Indochina.


Houghton explains this case using rational choice theory, cognitive theory, and bureaucratic politics theory. According to rational choice theory, the decision to escalate U.S. involvement in Vietnam was based on a rational strategy of containment and deterrence against communist expansion in Southeast Asia. According to cognitive theory, the decision to escalate U.S. involvement in Vietnam was influenced by several cognitive distortions and errors, such as analogical reasoning, misinformation, overconfidence, escalation of commitment, and cognitive dissonance. According to bureaucratic politics theory, the decision to escalate U.S. involvement in Vietnam was shaped by the interests and agendas of various actors and organizations within and outside the U.S. government, such as President Lyndon B. Johnson (LBJ), Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara (RM), Secretary of State Dean Rusk (DR), General William Westmoreland (WW), the JCS, the CIA, the State Department, the Pentagon, Congress, the media, and the anti-war movement, who competed and collaborated with each other under conditions of complexity and ambiguity.


Houghton concludes that none of the three theories can fully account for the decision to escalate U.S. involvement in Vietnam and its outcome, and that each theory has its own merits and limitations. He suggests that a more comprehensive and nuanced explanation would require combining these theories with other perspectives, such as historical institutionalism, organizational culture, leadership style, public opinion, and international context.


The Iran Hostage Crisis (1979-1981)




The fourth case study that Houghton examines is the Iran Hostage Crisis, a diplomatic standoff between the U.S. and Iran over the seizure of 52 American diplomats and citizens by Iranian revolutionaries in Tehran in November 1979. This case is widely regarded as one of the most humiliating episodes in U.S. foreign policy history, as it lasted for 444 days, damaged U.S. prestige and credibility, and contributed to the defeat of President Jimmy Carter in the 1980 presidential election.


Houghton explains this case using rational choice theory, cognitive theory, and bureaucratic politics theory. According to rational choice theory, the decision to launch a rescue mission in Iran was based on a rational calculation of costs and benefits, as the U.S. sought to free its hostages and restore its reputation by using military force. According to cognitive theory, the decision to launch a rescue mission in Iran was influenced by several psychological factors, such as perception, framing, learning, motivation, emotion, and bias. According to bureaucratic politics theory, the decision to launch a rescue mission in Iran was shaped by the interests and agendas of various actors and organizations within and outside the U.S. government, such as President Jimmy Carter (JC), National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski (ZB), Secretary of State Cyrus Vance (CV), JCS, CIA, State Department, Pentagon, Congress, the media, and the public, who bargained and cooperated with each other under conditions of uncertainty and urgency.


Houghton concludes that none of the three theories can fully account for the decision to launch a rescue mission in Iran and its outcome, and that each theory has its own merits and limitations. He suggests that a more comprehensive and nuanced explanation would require combining these theories with other perspectives, such as crisis management theory, signaling theory, domestic politics theory, and international system theory.


The Persian Gulf War (1990-1991)




The fifth case study that Houghton examines is the Persian Gulf War, a military intervention by a U.S.-led coalition of 35 countries to liberate Kuwait from Iraq's invasion and occupation in August 1990. This case is widely regarded as one of the most successful wars in U.S. foreign policy history, as it achieved its objectives with minimal casualties and costs, enhanced U.S. leadership and credibility, and established a new world order after the end of the Cold War.


Houghton explains this case using rational choice theory, cognitive theory, and bureaucratic politics theory. According to rational choice theory, the decision to liberate Kuwait from Iraq was based on a rational strategy of collective security and deterrence against Iraqi aggression and expansionism in the Persian Gulf region. According to cognitive theory, the decision to liberate Kuwait from Iraq was influenced by several psychological factors, such as perception, framing, learning, motivation, emotion, and bias. According to bureaucratic politics theory, the decision to liberate Kuwait from Iraq was shaped by the interests and agendas of various actors and organizations within and outside the U.S. government, such as President George H.W. Bush (GHWB), Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney (DC), Secretary of State James Baker (JB), General Colin Powell (CP), General Norman Schwarzkopf (NS), JCS, CIA, State Department, Pentagon, Congress, the media, the public, the United Nations (UN), NATO, and other coalition partners, who competed and collaborated with each other under conditions of complexity and ambiguity.


Houghton concludes that none of the three theories can fully account for the decision to liberate Kuwait from Iraq and its outcome, and that each theory has its own merits and limitations. He suggests that a more comprehensive and nuanced explanation would require combining these theories with other perspectives, such as game theory, signaling theory, domestic politics theory, international system theory, and constructivism.


The Iraq War (2003-2011)




The sixth and final case study that Houghton examines is the Iraq War, countries to overthrow the Iraqi government of Saddam Hussein in March 2003. This case is widely regarded as one of the most controversial and divisive wars in U.S. foreign policy history, as it was based on faulty intelligence and questionable motives, faced strong international opposition and domestic criticism, and resulted in over 4,000 American deaths, hundreds of thousands of Iraqi casualties, a prolonged insurgency, a sectarian civil war, a humanitarian crisis, and a regional instability.


Houghton explains this case using rational choice theory, cognitive theory, and bureaucratic politics theory. According to rational choice theory, the decision to invade Iraq was based on a rational strategy of preemption and prevention against a potential threat posed by Iraq's alleged possession of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) and its presumed links to terrorist groups. According to cognitive theory, the decision to invade Iraq was influenced by several psychological factors, such as perception, framing, learning, motivation, emotion, and bias. According to bureaucratic politics theory, the decision to invade Iraq was shaped by the interests and agendas of various actors and organizations within and outside the U.S. government, such as President George W. Bush (GWB), Vice President Dick Cheney (DC), Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld (DR), Secretary of State Colin Powell (CP), National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice (CR), CIA Director George Tenet (GT), JCS, CIA, State Department, Pentagon, Congress, the media, the public, the UN, NATO, and other coalition partners, who competed and collaborated with each other under conditions of complexity and ambiguity.


Houghton concludes that none of the three theories can fully account for the decision to invade Iraq and its outcome, and that each theory has its own merits and limitations. He suggests that a more comprehensive and nuanced explanation would require combining these theories with other perspectives, such as historical institutionalism, organizational culture, leadership style, public opinion, and international system theory.


Conclusion




In conclusion, Houghton's book The Decision Point: Six Cases in U.S. Foreign Policy Decision Making is a valuable and insightful contribution to the study of U.S. foreign policy decision making. It provides a clear and concise introduction to three basic theories of decision-making that can help us understand and evaluate the choices and actions of American leaders in different historical contexts and situations. It also applies these theories to six important and interesting cases that cover different regions, issues, and time periods in U.S. foreign policy history. It shows how each theory can offer different explanations and perspectives on each case, as well as their strengths and limitations. It also suggests how these theories can be combined or supplemented by other perspectives to provide a more comprehensive and nuanced explanation.


Houghton's book is not only informative and analytical, but also engaging and entertaining. It is written in a clear, concise, and accessible language, with numerous examples, anecdotes, and quotations that illustrate his points. It also includes several tables, figures, maps, and photographs that enhance his presentation. It is suitable for students, scholars, and general readers who are interested in learning more about U.S. foreign policy decision making.


FAQs




Here are some frequently asked questions about Houghton's book:


What are the main arguments and contributions of Houghton's book?




The main arguments and contributions of Houghton's book are: - It introduces three basic theories of decision-making that can help us understand and evaluate U.S. f


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