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Explaining and Forecasting Leaders' Decisions: A Poliheuristic Analysis of the Iran Hostage Rescue Decision


  • Author's note: I am grateful to Alex Mintz for invaluable comments on this paper.


In an increasingly dangerous world, forecasting national leaders' decisions during crises is a central concern of policy analysts. But with a wide range of specific military responses available to leaders, pinpointing a likely decision can be difficult. This essay argues that the poliheuristic theory of foreign policy decision making is a useful tool for aiding policy analysts in forecasting the decisions of national leaders. The theory's emphasis on a noncompensatory decision dimension facilitates the elimination of many of the possible decision alternatives, reducing uncertainty. Then, surviving alternatives are weighed against additional, nontrivial dimensions, producing a likely decision. As an illustrative case, I examine Carter's decision to implement the hostage rescue mission, demonstrating that Carter ruled out alternatives that failed to satisfy criteria on the noncompensatory decision dimension—reelection. The president's final choice was selected from the remaining alternatives according to its ability to simultaneously maximize net benefits with respect to military and strategic concerns. Following a comparison of the analysis with compensatory models of decision making, I suggest a general forecasting framework rooted in the poliheuristic theory. The theory can be applied to international crises provided that policy analysts obtain information concerning (1) the leader's noncompensatory decision criteria, (2) the set of alternatives that satisfy those criteria, and (3) the expected net benefits of the remaining alternatives on other dimensions (i.e., the military and strategic dimensions).