1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Presidential Management Systems and Advisory Structures
  4. Neocons and Realists
  5. Conclusion
  6. References

The purpose of this article is to examine the extent to which the management system and foreign policy advisory structures of the George W. Bush Administration led the president to launch the invasion of Iraq in March 2003. We contend that the decision to attack Iraq was an outgrowth of the conflict that began when the administration's national security team was assembled after Bush's electoral victory and was a by-product of the president's management style. We devote significant attention to the internal battles surrounding the decision for war between those who believe in a traditional multilateral approach (realists) to world politics and those who believe in a Pax Americana built on unilateralism (neocons). The article concludes that in addition to the way President Bush organized the decision-making process, his propensity for delegating responsibility to others combined with policy making structures built largely on consensus and personality factors, as opposed to procedures and processes, ultimately drove the White House toward the use of military force in Iraq.

Four years after the 9/11 attacks, President George W. Bush and his advisers have altered America's national security orientation from multilateralism toward unilateral preventive war, have asserted U.S. global preeminence, and have put the world on notice that the war against terrorism would continue for the foreseeable future. These pillars have come to form what many describe as the Bush Doctrine (Glad and Dolan 2004). In particular, the strategic doctrinal alteration in American foreign policy priorities and the decision to invade Iraq were contrived by the architects of the Bush administration's preventive war objectives, the sources of which pre-date the 9/11 attacks. In the years before and during the Bush administration, internal battles within key foreign policy structures were waged over the strategic direction of U.S. national security policy between those who believe in a traditional multilateral approach and those who believe in an aggressive exercise of unilateral military force. The overall aim of this article is to explain the Bush administration's Iraq war policy by examining the president's management of the foreign policy decision-making process.

Presidential Management Systems and Advisory Structures

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Presidential Management Systems and Advisory Structures
  4. Neocons and Realists
  5. Conclusion
  6. References

Research on foreign policy decision making posits that presidential management systems are consequential to how presidents formulate foreign policy. Our interest here is to provide an insight into how the political structures of the Bush administration contributed to the president's decision to launch the war against Iraq.

Significance of Presidential Management Systems

Although path-breaking studies have examined how organizational processes, governmental politics, and bureaucratic politics define policy making, presidency scholars have tended to focus on the operational mechanics and advisory structures within presidential management systems (see Allison 1971; Halperin 1974; Rosati 1981).1 Most concede that systems assume one of two forms: one governed by formal and centralized structures with rigid decision rules; and a second form, in which an informal and collegial environment produces multiple sources of advice. Richard Tanner Johnson (1974) delineated competitive, formalistic, and collegial systems that presidents from Truman to Nixon designed to contend with conflicting viewpoints, screening information, maintaining deliberation, and producing feasible courses of action. While Johnson has been criticized for producing a simple typology with little variation, Alexander George (1980) firmly grounded Johnson's three systems on the personal characteristics of individual presidents. More specifically, George contended that a president's sense of efficacy, orientation toward conflict, and cognitive style will determine, to a great extent, the overall design of the president's management system, method of acquiring knowledge, feelings of competency, and will influence the president's role within the system (see also Burke and Greenstein 1989; George and George 1998).

Other scholars have examined management systems by loosely applying the formal/informal dichotomy. Roger Porter (1980), for example, concludes that presidents employ ad hoc (informal groups in specific issue areas), centralized (staff as a tightly organized gatekeeper), and multiple advocacy (staff as a managerial custodian) management systems. John Burke (2000) focuses his analysis on how informal relationships among advisors and irregular modes of interaction influence advisory groups in certain issue areas. In describing advisors as facilitators, directors, and monitors, Ponder (2000) concludes that management systems experience cross-cutting pressures according to the issue, the level of urgency assigned by the president, and the varying impact on public and elite constituencies. In his study of the cabinet and White House organizational patterns, Campbell (1986) details spokes-in-a-wheel, hierarchical, and mixed management systems.

Walcott and Hult (1987; 1995) expanded the overall study of management systems by explaining how advisory structures arise, stabilize, and then differentiate across administrations. By focusing on the political environment surrounding the White House Office and the president's personal attributes, these authors observe that chief executives will take into account the salience and nature of issues and preexisting institutions when building the advisory structures that define their management systems. They also identify uncertainty and controversy as intervening variables within the political environment and decision-making context that ultimately influence so advisory structures (Hult and Walcott 2004; Walcott and Hult 1995). The significance of this literature has not only captured the general importance of management styles and advisory structures, it has also supplied a solid foundation upon which the essential features of President George W. Bush's foreign policy advisory approach can be examined.

The Bush Approach and the War Cabinet

The Bush administration sought to establish a measure of “governing credibility” in building the foreign policy advisory structures which ultimately led to the decision to go to war against Iraq. On the whole, Bush's goal had been to set the overall direction of foreign policy, to build and maintain clear lines of communication with his subordinates, and to delegate the specific details of foreign policy to his aides and cabinet secretaries. Bush, the first president with an MBA, described his approach to management in the following light: “I put a lot of faith and trust in my staff. My job is to set the agenda and tone and framework, to lay out the principles by which we operate and make decisions, and then delegate much of the process to them” (Allen 2004, A6). Bush justified this style by virtue of his position as president. “I’m the commander—see, I don’t need to explain—I do not need to explain why I say things. That's the interesting thing about being the president. Maybe somebody needs to explain to me why they say something, but I don’t feel like I owe anybody an explanation” (Woodward 2002, 145–6). This has led Fred I. Greenstein to observe that although Bush “hews to goals, and has the vision thing in spades,” he displays “an excessive reliance on subordinates” and “doesn’t turn over the rock” (Allen 2004, A6).

The implications of such a management style are that Bush will not “micromanage” the process or engage in policy debates with his advisers. For instance, on national security issues, former White House Counsel and current Attorney General Alberto Gonzales stated that it is “contrary to the way this president operates, I think it's really sort of bad government, to try to micromanage—particularly the military” (Allen 2004, A6). Additional evidence appears in one of Bush's reflections on his managerial position in the war cabinet that formed following the 9/11 attacks. “One of my jobs is to be provocative  . . . seriously, to provoke people into—to force decisions, and to make sure it's clear in everybody's mind where we’re headed” (Woodward 2002, 144). In essence, making decisions and maintaining the selected course of action based on consensus were most important for Bush. He stated that “one of the things I know that can happen is, if everybody is not on the same page, then you’re going to have people peeling off and second-guessing and the process will not, will really not unfold the way it should, there won’t be honest discussion” (Woodward 2002, 73).

Following 9/11, much of the decision environment involving the War on Terror became embedded in meetings with a group of administration officials which included the principals of the National Security Council (NSC) and others. This group, known as the “War Cabinet,” was composed of those advisers closest to Bush and those most integral to the grave matters following 9/11. Membership included: Bush, Vice President Richard Cheney, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz, Secretary of State Colin Powell, Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage, Chief of Staff Andrew Card, and National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice. Other subordinates of these NSC members, as well as other administration members such as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Richard Myers, Central Command chief General Tommy Franks, and CIA Director George Tenet, were involved in War Cabinet meetings as necessary.

By appointing Andrew Card as chief of staff, Bush signaled his intention to promote a structured but not a rigidly hierarchical management system (Cohen, Dolan and Rosati 2002). Having served in the Reagan White House as well as three years as deputy chief of staff in the elder Bush's administration, Card had a great deal of Washington experience. Perhaps the greatest challenge facing any president and his chief of staff is managing access to the Oval Office. In doing so, Bush seemed well aware of the excessive gatekeeper actions by President George H. W. Bush's first chief of staff, John Sununu (Cohen 1997; 2002). Bush noted in A Charge to Keep (1999, 97), “I had seen that problem in my dad's administration. Key members of his staff had felt stifled because they had to go through a filter to get information to the President.”

In addition to Card, Vice-President Richard Cheney possessed a vast amount of managerial and political experience. A keen observer of “the pitfalls of White House hubris and amateurishness” who served as President Gerald Ford's chief of staff, Cheney seemed to favor a more centralized advisory system, akin to that of Bush's father (see Lechelt 2004, 23–32). As leader of the abridged 2000 transition, Cheney served Bush as a quasi-prime minister. “The only person who reports directly to Mr. Bush other than Mr. Cheney, transition officials said, is the White House staff chief, Mr. Card—who also answers to Mr. Cheney in a dotted-line relationship” (see Milbank 2000, A6). Indeed, Cheney has a long career as a “number two man.” However, because Cheney's experience overshadowed the president’s, it appeared as though the White House was compelled to stress his subordinate position. Cheney's counselor Mary Matalin claimed “[t]he vice president has no personal or political agenda other than advising President Bush” (Schmitt 2001, A8). Even Bush stated, “Dick's doing a good job because he's told me he doesn’t want to be president” (A8).

Donald Rumsfeld proved a surprising choice as secretary of defense considering he was taking up the same role he had under Gerald Ford 25 years earlier. Rumsfeld, Cheney's predecessor as White House chief of staff for President Ford, was a close ally of Cheney who pushed his nomination with George W. Bush. Although often criticized for his outspokenness and brashness, Rumsfeld survived the entire first term despite numerous setbacks in the Iraq War as well as internal friction within the Department of Defense (DOD) because of his attempts to transform the American military from a large Cold War fighting machine to a light rapid deployment force.

Seen by some as a counter weight to both Rumsfeld and Cheney, Secretary of State Colin Powell also held significant Washington experience (Scarborough 2000, A1; Mitchell 2000, A1; Rees 2000, 21). Following his long military career, Powell first made his first political mark in the Reagan administration having served as national security adviser and then under presidents G. H. W. Bush and Clinton as chairman of the joint chiefs of staff (Means 1992; Powell 1995; Powell 1992a; Mann 1999). According to George W. Bush, “[w]e must conduct our foreign policy in the spirit of national unity and bipartisanship. Our next secretary of state believes, as I do, that we must work closely with our allies and friends in time of calm so that we will be able to work together in times of crisis” (Federal News Service 2000). In other words, Powell was a symbol of national unity following the contested 2000 presidential election and his nomination as secretary of state was made to assure America's allies that national security would be in steady hands.

Although Condoleezza Rice played a prominent role as a teacher to Bush during the 2000 campaign, it is likely that Bush and Cheney perceived her role as national security adviser in the first term as a behind-the-scenes coordinator in the tradition of her mentor, former National Security Adviser Brent Scowcroft (Perlez 2001). Scowcroft was perceived as the classic neutral broker in that he did not express strong policy preferences in opposition to other NSC principals and presented alternative views to the president. According to Edward Luttwak (2002), Rice did not dominate policy meetings, but strove to “listen quietly, to later review the issues when alone with the president.” According to Bob Woodward, Rice described her role as

first, to coordinate what Defense, State, the CIA and other departments or agencies were doing by making sure the president's orders were carried out; and second, to act as counselor—to give her private assessment to the president, certainly when he asked, perhaps if he didn’t. In other words, she was to be the president's troubleshooter. (Woodward 2002, 254)

In Bush's view, “[s]he is an honest broker . . . I imagine she gives the President her unvarnished opinions, but she also is sure the President receives without distortion or prejudice the views of his key foreign policy leaders such as Secretaries Powell and Rumsfeld” (Lemann 2002, 167). Some such as John Burke (2005a and 2005b) have noted, however, that Rice's performance as “honest broker” slipped following 9/11 and especially in the run-up to the Iraq War.

The road to war against Iraq is an interesting case study to assess the organization of President Bush's national security advisory system, especially given the president's own description of security issues as “the focus of my administration from now on” (Milbank 2001, 1). Although his management system was more open than a typical hierarchical framework, Bush relied on a small circle of advisers—the war cabinet—to coordinate his national security policies following the 9/11 terrorist attacks.2 However, the overall process within this small circle tended to push premature resolution of policy disagreements as opposed to deliberation and multiple advocacy (Joynt Kumar and Sullivan 2003). Bush's overall consensus-building strategy has been described by Kathryn Dunn Tenpas (2002, 5) as akin to a “move it or lose it” approach. While the potential for bureaucratic warfare would seemingly indicate that disputes among advisers would lead to gridlock and endless debate, the president's emphasis on producing consensus and acting in a decisive fashion were likely factors in driving the ultimate decision to invade Iraq (Mann 2004, 275).3 The primary implication of a system that places significant attention upon consensus is the inability of the president and his advisers to experiment with and develop policy alternatives and to respond to events and challenges as they arise.

Neocons and Realists

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Presidential Management Systems and Advisory Structures
  4. Neocons and Realists
  5. Conclusion
  6. References

We turn now to an examination of the cleavages which developed within the advisory system that allowed a number of advisers to wield significant influence. Two groups, the neocons and the realists, came to dominate key advisory structures within the G. W. Bush foreign policy decision-making process.

The Neocons

The neocons (neo-conservative policy makers and thinkers) became deeply entrenched in high level positions in the DOD, the Office of the vice president, and those outside government in key pressure groups.4 In the first term, among the most important political actors were Vice President Dick Cheney and his chief of staff Lewis (Scooter) Libby, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz, Weekly Standard Editor and co-founder of the Project for the New American Century (PNAC) William Kristol, and former Reagan Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security and former Chair of the Defense Policy Board Richard Perle (see Hirsh 2003; Hosenball, Isikoff, and Thomas 2003: Tanenhaus 2003; Mann 2004). The neocons oppose containment, promote an aggressive and unilateral assertion of hegemony, are critical of United States membership in multilateral organizations, and are the most active proponents of preventive war and expanding the war on terrorism to include the use of military force against states that promote terrorism (Mann 2004). While Cheney and Rumsfeld are the most publicly visible neocons, the most important is Wolfowitz (Danner 2002).

The neocons are descendants of President Reagan and his 1983 “Evil Empire” speech. That is, their vision of the world is defined by the notion that there is both good and evil, us versus them (Hirsch 2003). The neocons argue that in the absence of the Soviet Union, American power should be used to change the world and eliminate threatening regimes. They also perceive multilateralism as useful only if it benefits U.S. interests. As conveyed by Richard Perle in a 2002 interview,

[m]ultilateralism is fine in principle. What is not fine is having our interests adversely affected by the inability to gain a sufficient degree of multilateral support. And what is not fine is subsuming American interests, particularly where security is concerned, in some larger notion that, if the only option in [sic.] unilateral, we should be paralyzed. We can’t do that. We cannot abdicate responsibility for our own security. So, multilateralism is preferable, if we can get a consensus. But if the only way you can get a consensus is by abandoning your most fundamental interests, then it is not helpful. So it's a question of how much multilateralism in what circumstances. (Perle 2002)

Much of the Bush Doctrine that emerged after 9/11 is a clear reflection of the ambitious positions taken by the neocons well before the Al-Qaeda attacks. In Robert Jervis’ view (2003), the Bush Doctrine is composed of

a strong belief in the importance of a state's domestic regime in determining its foreign policy and the related judgment that this is an opportune time to transform international politics; the perception of great threats that can be defeated only by new and vigorous policies, most notably preventive war; a willingness to act unilaterally when necessary; and, as both a cause and a summary of these beliefs, an overriding sense that peace and stability require the United States to assert its primacy in world politics. (193)

One of the key propositions of the Bush Doctrine is that the United States reserves the right to overthrow regimes that pose a significant threat to the national security interests of the United States. President Bush highlighted the notion of preventive war in a 2002 speech at West Point when he asserted that “[w]e cannot defend America and our friends by hoping for the best. We cannot put our faith in the word of tyrants, who solemnly sign non-proliferation treaties, and then systemically break them. If we wait for threats to fully materialize, we will have waited too long” (Bush, G. W. 2002b). One nation that was viewed as a serious threat to U.S. national security was Saddam Hussein's Iraq; Kim Jong Ill's North Korea, and the mullahs of Iran are also seen as potential future targets of American military intervention.

A critical organization that has supplied the neocons with much of their intellectual coherence is the PNAC, which was formed largely by the efforts of William Kristol and Donald Kagan in the mid-1990s as a think tank to advance what they called a “Reaganite policy of military strength” (PNAC 1997). The goals of the PNAC would later saturate U.S. foreign policy after 9/11 in that it promotes major increases in defense spending, and the transformation of the armed forces from the Cold War era two-theater war approach to a modern military that can be rapidly deployed anywhere to confront and challenge “regimes hostile to our interests and values” (PNAC 1997).5


The realists are a coalition of reluctant warriors who occupied positions in the Department of State during George W. Bush's first term or served in the George H. W. Bush and Clinton administrations. On the whole, they are largely viewed as a voice of restraint. Led by first term Secretary of State Colin Powell and his deputy Richard Armitage, along with former Director of the State Department's Policy Planning Staff Richard Haas, former Clinton special coordinator for the Middle East Dennis Ross, George H. W. Bush Secretaries of State James Baker and Lawrence Eagleburger, G. H. W. Bush's National Security Adviser Brent Scowcroft, and President George H. W. Bush himself, the realists were highly resistant to engagements in which the use of military force is the first option.

Perhaps the most visible and vocal leader of the realists was Powell, who had been tutored by former Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger, Scowcroft, and Baker (Thomas 2003; Kessler and Pincus 2003). An important indication of how Powell would approach his role as secretary of state was his strong public advocacy of the so-called Weinberger-Powell doctrine. The doctrine holds that prior to a military commitment: (1) policymakers must secure public and legislative approval; (2) force is to be used only as a last resort when nonmilitary options have been exhausted; (3) force size must be overwhelming; and (4) there must be a clear military objective and an exit strategy in place before military action commences. It was fundamentally a realist doctrine, focusing on the instruments of power and national interests (Weinberger 1986; Mann 2004, 44; Woodward 2004). Challenging neoconservatives calling for US hegemony, Powell cautions that “where we should not use force we have to be wise enough to exercise restraint” (Powell 1992b). Clearly, Powell believed in the use of economic, political, and diplomatic means to control conflict; to buttress those elements, he knew the presence of a powerful military was necessary. Therefore, his belief in the adherence to an established “exit strategy” helped guide his prescriptions for action when necessary (Arnel Enriquez 2004; Howard 2002; von Hippel 2000). Both he and Deputy Secretary of State Armitage have contended that the doctrine calls for more than just avoidance of gruesome quagmires; it is a demonstration of American leadership with the support of its allies in the pursuit of goals with decisive force (Donnelly 2000).

On the whole, the realists were pragmatists who wanted Bush to keep his options open. They viewed foreign policy as a patient management of alliances, competition, and struggle among states and nonstates (Krauthammer 2001). In other words, the realists believed that American power does not have to be the projection of overwhelming American military might. A similar point was made by Dennis Ross in a 2002 interview.

If we’re looking at problems like terrorism, terrorism by definition requires a coalition, because it depends upon intelligence, and it can’t only be our intelligence. It depends upon law enforcement, and it can’t only be our law enforcement. It depends upon cutting financial flows, and we can’t do that unilaterally. So there are, by definition, certain issues—whether it's terrorism or its [sic.] environment or its [sic.] health, like AIDS—these are each problems that are going to have to be taken on, on a multilateral basis. Proliferation, much the same. (Ross 2002)

Furthermore, the realists decried the notion of focusing too much on states as threats, especially because it could harm American efforts in the global war on terrorism. For Brent Scowcroft (2002, 22), “the most serious cost would be the war on terrorism. Ignoring that clear sentiment would result in a serious degradation in international cooperation with us against terrorism. And make no mistake, we simply cannot win that war without enthusiastic international cooperation.” According to the realists, such a strategy would not only bankrupt the United States and lead to significant casualties, it would contribute to the image of American imperialism in the Middle East and actually increase the frequency of terror attacks against the United States at home and abroad.6

Waging the War about the War

Struggles between these two groups can be illustrated with the battle over the G. W. Bush administration's policy regarding Saddam Hussein and Iraq. While a cursory assessment of the neocons may reveal that this group first advanced its policy interests in the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, a deeper examination demonstrates that the neocons sought to advance their objectives shortly after the 1991 Gulf War. The neocons contended that President George H. W. Bush ended the Persian Gulf War prematurely and that Bush, Scowcroft, Baker, and Powell talked themselves into falsely believing that Saddam's days were numbered (Tanenhaus 2003). According to an interview with William Kristol (2002), the decision

fit in with the general view of the world, where you don’t change regimes unless you absolutely have to. It puts a high premium on stability. It put a high premium on accommodating our Arab friends. They had a big interest in stability, since they didn’t like the idea that people might get used to changing regimes and all that. So I think it was just part of a general worldview of Bush and Scowcroft and others.

The neocons pointed to Saddam's ability to endure in office as evidence that containment is unacceptable and underestimates the degree to which tyrants will go to remain in power. Even leading neocon Richard Perle acknowledged that “on the day the decision was made to end the war, I don’t think any of the principals believed that Saddam would be there. And the idea that he would be there a decade later would have been considered preposterous” (Perle 2002).

Attention after the Gulf War turned to what the American role would be in the post-Cold War. The realists perceived the Gulf War as a great success and hoped some new world order might emerge with the United States in a leadership position based on a broad international consensus. President George H. W. Bush made a number of speeches in which he delineated his vision of the “new world order” that he and his advisers hoped would materialize in the Gulf War's aftermath. For example, in April 1991, he stated that the new world order

describes a responsibility imposed by our successes [in the Gulf War]. It refers to new ways of working with other nations to deter aggression and to achieve stability, to achieve prosperity and, above all, to achieve peace. It springs from hopes for a world based on a shared commitment among nations large and small to a set of principles that undergird our relations: peaceful settlements of disputes, solidarity against aggression, reduced and controlled arsenals, and just treatment of all peoples. (Bush, G. H. W. 1991)

President Bush's vision of the new world order did not rule out force as an option. However, unlike the vision of his son's administration, the elder Bush believed in a doctrine of multilateralism as the preferred option, even when faced with impending military action. He clearly laid out this vision in the last month of his presidency in a speech at West Point (1993).

Once we are satisfied that force makes sense, we must act with the maximum possible support. The United States can and should lead, but we will want to act in concert, where possible involving the United Nations or other multinational grouping. The United States can and should contribute to the common undertaking in a manner commensurate with our wealth, with our strength. But others should also contribute militarily, be it by providing combat or support forces, access to facilities or bases, or overflight rights. And similarly, others should contribute economically. It is unreasonable to expect the United States to bear the full financial burden of intervention when other nations have a stake in the outcome.

For the realists, after Gulf War I, Iraq became a secondary factor. Following the collapse of the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact, the realists believed democracy and capitalism would spread to become the preferred political and economic system around the globe. In fact, they believed any U.S. military move against Iraq would destabilize the entire Middle East.7 Indeed, the 1990s were an optimistic time, and understandably so, given that the United States emerged victorious from the Cold War and entered into a sustained period of economic wealth and prosperity.

The neocons countered by claiming that the elder Bush and Clinton failed to take advantage of the opportunities made available by the demise of the Soviet Union to forcefully advance American interests and assert global U.S. supremacy. The neocons believed that the world was brewing with potential conflict and that democracy was not on the rise, but to the contrary, being threatened by North Korea, Iraq, Syria, and Iran. For neocons, America's use of overwhelming force against Iraq was a necessary springboard to demonstrate the preeminence of U.S. power, especially in the Islamic Middle East (see Kaplan and Kristol 2003). However, the opportunity for the neocons to exercise serious influence would not present itself until after 9/11.

The Defense Planning Guideline and the Project for a New American Century

One attempt to influence the process was utilized by the neocons in 1992 when Wolfowitz, along with Cheney and Libby, supervised a DOD policy draft detailing how the United States should respond to the collapse of the USSR. The result was the Defense Planning Guidance (DPG), which argued that the United States should increase defense spending, assert itself as the sole superpower, and squash the rise of regional hegemons that could potentially take advantage of the void left by the Soviet Union (Tyler 1992). In the original draft, the idea of forming new “coalitions of the willing” was first advanced. That is, if the United States could not persuade multilateral organizations to go along, it “will go with whoever we can convince and at the same time we’ll try to keep the coalitions behind us” or “act alone in defense of our interests” (Gellman 2003). Furthermore, the notion of preventive war was advanced in the document—a precursor to the Bush Doctrine which would emerge post-9/11 (Gellman 1992).

President G. H. W. Bush, Scowcroft, and other leading realists were unhappy with the DPG, not only for the reason that the declaration was leaked to the press before it was received by the White House, but also because it conflicted with the administration's foreign policy goals, which held that the United States would not be the world's policeman (Kristol 2002).8 More importantly, the DPG's suggestion that the defense budget be sharply increased clashed with Bush's desire to cash in on the peace dividend in a crucial election year in which the Cold War was rapidly coming to an end. Realists in the administration, namely Scowcroft, Powell, and Baker, were able to fend off the neocon's bold assertions by moderating and softening the DPG's recommendations. In 1998 Richard Haas referred to Wolfowitz's DPG as the “Pentagon Paper” and disagreed with the notion that the United States could transform states as the world's lone superpower. “For better or worse, such a goal is beyond our reach. It is simply not doable. The United States cannot compel others to become more democratic” (Lemann 2002, 42).

As a result, the White House ordered the DOD to sanitize the DPG, remove any references to unilateral action, preemption, and preventive war, reaffirm containment strategy in dealing with Weapons of Mass Destruction, and reiterate America's commitments to multilateral organizations (Mann 2004). While the realists, most members of Congress, and the Clinton administration rejected the 1992 DPG draft, it would later be used by the neocons as a policy foundation from which to initiate the Bush Doctrine in response to 9/11.

The neocons also sought to gain the attention of the Clinton administration. In January 1998, the neocon's PNAC issued an open “Letter to President Clinton on Iraq,” in which they counseled that “the policy of ‘containment’ of Saddam Hussein has been steadily eroding over the past several months,” and that a new strategy “should aim, above all, at the removal of Saddam Hussein's regime from power” (PNAC 1998).9 In the summer of 1998, the PNAC successfully lobbied for a meeting between Wolfowitz, Rumsfeld, Perle and Clinton National Security Adviser Sandy Berger, and recommended that the Clinton administration topple Hussein. In response, Clinton decided on a public campaign to win support for military action, which backfired following student resistance against Berger, Secretary of State Madeline Albright, and Secretary of Defense William Cohen at Ohio State University and other venues (see Nelan 1998).

While they were not successful in convincing President Clinton to move on Iraq (though Clinton did order limited air strikes on Iraq during Operation Desert Fox), the neocons were growing into a highly organized coalition. In 1999 both the neocons led by Rumsfeld and Wolfowitz and a loose association of realists represented by Powell and Rice traveled to Austin, Texas to throw their support behind the Republican frontrunner, Governor George W. Bush. Throughout the 2000 presidential campaign, Bush avoided making claims that promoted a major doctrinal or policy shift away from containment to preemption or preventive war. When he did speak on world issues, his positions reflected the influence of Rice, his tutor and future national security adviser, who was very skeptical of many of the proposals put forth by the neocons. In his first major speech on world politics in November 1999, Governor Bush asserted that “a President must be a clear-eyed realist,” a statement which places significant emphasis on maintaining the policy status quo and acknowledging the importance of great power politics (Marinucci and Podger 1999). His views were shaped by Rice who argued in an article published in Foreign Affairs arguing that realism and great power politics should be acknowledged as potent forces after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Even those uncomfortable with notions of the “national interest” are still queasy with a focus on power relationships and great power politics. The reality is that a few big powers can radically affect international peace, stability, and prosperity. These states are capable of disruption on a grand scale . . . Great powers do not just mind their own business. (Rice 2000, 46)

The neocons had to be delicate in exercising influence with Bush for two reasons. First, it appeared that Bush was already taking his cues from Rice who seemed initially sympathetic to the realists. Second, the neocons could not be too forceful with Bush, because it was his father they were most critical of.

The First Days of George W. Bush

Following Bush's controversial electoral victory over Al Gore, both the neocons and the realists petitioned Bush with aspirants for important positions in the new administration. The realists scored Powell as Secretary of State, Armitage as Deputy Secretary of State, and Haas as Director of the State Department's Policy Planning Staff. The neocons ended up with Rumsfeld as Secretary of Defense, Wolfowitz as Deputy Secretary of Defense, and of course Cheney as Vice President and Libby as his chief of staff. The appointments of Powell, Armitage, and Haas, as well as General Richard Myers as Joint Chiefs of Staff Chair, should be interpreted as counterweights to Cheney, Rumsfeld, and Wolfowitz. While neither coalition really knew where it stood with the president prior to 9/11, the neocons were especially frustrated. According to Kristol,

[w]e didn’t have great hopes for Bush as a foreign policy president. Indeed, once he became president, we were pretty critical of him in those first several months . . . I think you could make a case that on Sept. 10, 2001, it's not clear that George W. Bush was, in any fundamental way, going in our direction of foreign policy. (2002)

There was some evidence, however, that the neocons were winning the early battle for the heart and soul of George W. Bush. Just one day before the 9/11 attacks, a Time cover ran with Colin Powell's picture asking “Where Have You Gone, Colin Powell?” as part of a story suggesting that the neocons had succeeded in neutralizing Powell's standing within the administration. As the article suggested,

[i]t comes as one of the biggest surprises in the emerging Bush 43 era that Colin Powell, the man many thought would walk into the presidency himself a few years ago, is leaving such shallow footprints. By the cruel calculus of Washington, you are only as powerful as people think you are. Powell's megastar wattage looks curiously dimmed, as if someone has turned his light way down. (McGeary 2001, 28)


When terrorists struck on 9/11, everything about the Bush administration changed, especially its foreign policy orientation. The attacks made it possible for the neocons to persuade Bush to safely begin the process of building his doctrine in principle and in practice.10 The principles set forth in the 1992 DPG suddenly reappeared. In a speech on the night of September 11, at the urging of the neocons, the president stated “we will make no distinction between the terrorists who committed these acts and those who harbor them” (Tanenhaus 2003). These words established the principle that the United States would not just retaliate against the 9/11 planners, but aggressively pursue countries that supported them.

On September 12, in the first meeting of his war cabinet, Bush stated that the terrorist attacks the previous day “were more than acts of terror, they were acts of war,” thus declaring to the world that 9/11 was not just an isolated crime, but the beginning of a war against states and nonstates that the United States believed were threatening, challenging, and rivaling its power (Woodward 2002, 51–2). An important explanation for how and why the neocons were able to gain Bush's ear so quickly lies in large measure to the fact that while Cheney, Rice, and the NSC staff were locked down in the White House and in close communications with Rumsfeld at the Pentagon and the president on Air Force One on 9/11, Powell and his staff were incommunicado en route from South America. Given these circumstances, by September 12 the war about the war on terror was well underway.

Following 9/11, U.S. policy makers grappled with the questions of how to respond, with what means and, most importantly, where to strike. The neocons saw this as a prime opportunity to persuade the president to attack Iraq whereas the realists favored moving on Al-Qaeda and overthrowing the Taliban in Afghanistan (Tanenhaus 2003). The two coalitions publicly clashed over how to proceed. In a press conference at the Pentagon, Wolfowitz lobbed the first volley.

These people try to hide, but they won’t be able to hide forever. They think their harbors are safe, but they won’t be safe forever. I think one has to say it's not just simply a matter of capturing people and holding them accountable, but removing the sanctuaries, removing the support systems, ending states who sponsor terrorism. And that's why it has to be a broad and sustained campaign. It's not going to stop if a few criminals are taken care of. (Wolfowitz 2001)

This was the first public inference by a senior member of the administration that the United States should move against Iraq and a clear attempt at manipulating the policy-making process toward the neocon's policy interest. It was also a slap at the State Department. The same afternoon, an alarmed and irritated Powell retaliated. “We’re after ending terrorism. And if there are states and regimes, nations that support terrorism, we hope to persuade them that it is in their interest to stop doing that. But I think ending terrorism is where I would like to leave it, and let Mr. Wolfowitz speak for himself” (Powell 2001).

Convinced that Iraq was not directly linked to 9/11, Powell and Armitage argued that the United States should invade Afghanistan and provide all necessary support to Northern Alliance forces. Their argument was that public support precipitated a military response in Afghanistan and that any action against Iraq would have to be more incremental (Tanenhaus 2003). On October 8, 2001 the United States began its bombing campaign on Taliban and Al-Qaeda forces in Afghanistan. A month later Al-Qaeda was on the run and the Taliban government collapsed under the weight of devastating air strikes and ground assaults. Until the end of 2001, Bush focused his attention on capturing Al-Qaeda leader Osama Bin Laden and Mullah Mohammed Omar of the Taliban government throughout Afghanistan and Western Pakistan.

In the aftermath of 9/11, the PNAC wasted little time urging the Bush administration to rethink its Iraq policy. Just as they did during the Clinton administration, PNAC issued a public letter to President Bush on September 20 recommending a series of steps that would be “necessary parts of a comprehensive strategy” in the war on terror. Among others, PNAC suggested that

[i]t may be that the Iraqi government provided assistance in some form to the recent attack on the United States. But even if evidence does not link Iraq directly to the attack, any strategy aiming at the eradication of terrorism and its sponsors must include a determined effort to remove Saddam Hussein from power in Iraq. Failure to undertake such an effort will constitute an early and perhaps decisive surrender in the war on international terrorism. (PNAC 2001)

Though the neocons were initially unsuccessful in getting Iraq on the agenda, it became clear that Afghanistan was just phase one of the U.S. response (Cheney 2002). Throughout 2002 and early 2003, U.S. military action in Afghanistan became a war in the shadows as the neocons influenced the president to begin phase two: Iraq. The official road to war began on September 17, 2001 when Bush signed a secret order to invade Afghanistan that included a plan to soon attack Iraq (Kessler 2003, A20). However, the public campaign for military action against Iraq began on January 29, 2002 in the State of the Union Address, after Iraq was placed in the so-called axis-of-evil along with Iran and North Korea. Though one might have expected Powell and Armitage to have balked at the use of the controversial language, they in fact signed off on the speech. The furor it set off in the rest of the world did, however, take many in the administration by surprise (Mann 2004, 317–21; Woodward 2004, 87–95).

By August 2002, the realists and neocons were embroiled in a highly public war over Iraq. The realists were concerned with the negative implications associated with the public expression of American unilateralism, which could threaten support for any action against Iraq and multilateral cooperation in the war on terrorism (Mann 2004, 336–8). By mid-2002 the increasing talk of attacking Iraq resulted in significant global resistance to such a venture, as public opposition shot up to 87 percent in Russia, 81 percent in Spain and Italy, 75 percent in France, 69 percent in Germany, and 51 percent in Great Britain with favorable views of America and Americans dropping below 50 percent in all six countries (Pew Research Center for the People and the Press 2003). Antagonism in France and Russia were of particular concern, if the president was going to consult with permanent members of the United Nations (UN) Security Council.

The realists utilized two key political tactics to push their policy interests with the president. The first was when Powell successfully lobbied Rice for a private dinner with Bush at the White House on August 5, 2002. Powell convinced the President that he should be mindful of international opposition to a unilateral war without additional UN weapons inspections and the potential costs and consequences for the United States and the Middle East (Woodward 2002, 103–4, 333–5). Clearly, Powell's role was important to the president as he was the only advisor in the entire administration with the stature and respect to present an alternative course of action. Besides, it was Powell who built the coalition in support of U.S. force in Afghanistan that toppled the Taliban in matter of a few weeks.

The second tactic was carried by out by realists outside the administration. On August 15, 2002 Brent Scowcroft wrote an Op. Ed. piece in the Wall Street Journal calling on the president to avoid a costly war against Iraq for fear that it would delegitimize the global war on terrorism and destabilize the Middle East. He argued that

[t]here is scant evidence to tie Saddam to terrorist organizations, and even less to the September 11 attacks. Indeed Saddam's goals have little in common with the terrorists who threaten us, and there is little incentive for him to make common cause with them . . . The central point is that any campaign against Iraq, whatever the strategy, cost and risks, is certain to divert us for some indefinite period from our war on terrorism. Worse, there is a virtual consensus in the world against an attack on Iraq at this time. So long as that sentiment persists, it would require the U.S. to pursue a virtual go-it-alone strategy against Iraq, making any military operation correspondingly more difficult and expensive. The most serious cost, however, would be to the war on terrorism. Ignoring that clear sentiment would result in a serious degradation in international cooperation with us against terrorism. And make no mistake, we simply cannot win that war without enthusiastic international cooperation. (Scowcroft 2002, 22)

Ten days later, James Baker (2002) published an Op. Ed. piece in the New York Times arguing that the United States should build a coalition against Iraq and consult with the United Nations beforehand.

We should try our best not to have to go it alone, and the president should reject the advice of those who counsel doing so. The costs in all areas will be much greater, as will the political risks if we end up going it alone or with only one or two other countries . . . The United States should advocate the adoption by the United Nations Security Council of a simple and straightforward resolution requiring that Iraq submit to intrusive inspections anytime, anywhere, with no exceptions, and authorizing all necessary means to enforce it . . . Seeking new authorization now is necessary, politically and practically, and will help build international support. (21)

The neocons responded by rallying around Vice President Cheney. One day after the publication of Baker's article, Cheney shot back at his former colleagues in a speech before the Veterans of Foreign Wars in Nashville. “A return of inspectors would provide no assurance whatsoever of his compliance with U.N. resolutions. On the contrary, there is a great danger that it would provide false comfort that Saddam was somehow ‘back in his box.’ ” Cheney then went on to make the claim, later shown to be false, that “simply stated, there is no doubt that Saddam Hussein now has weapons of mass destruction” (Cheney 2002).11

While Powell, Scowcroft, and Baker did not halt the administration's highly public drive to topple Hussein, they did succeed in influencing the president to appeal for multilateral support (Woodward 2004; 2002). As a result, a compromise was struck that reflected the policy interests of both the neocons and the realists. In an address to the UN on September 12, 2002 Bush called for a new UN resolution on Iraq and stated “[m]y nation will work with the U.N. Security Council to meet our common challenge . . . We will work with the U.N. Security Council for the necessary resolutions.” He also put the General Assembly on notice that that “the purposes of the United States should not be doubted. The Security Council resolutions will be enforced—the just demands of peace and security will be met—or action will be unavoidable. And a regime that has lost its legitimacy will also lose its power” (Bush, G. W. 2002a). In response, the UN Security Council voted 5-0 in favor of Resolution 1441, which restarted weapons inspections in Iraq and represented a tactical victory for Powell and the State Department.

At the same time the president was seeking international support, a bureaucratic war developed within the Department of Defense between key neocons and realists over how many troops would be needed to carry out a successful occupation of Iraq. According to former Army Chief of Staff General Eric Shinseki and former Secretary of the Army Thomas White, a smaller fighting force would make it difficult to successfully stabilize Iraq, eliminate potential insurgents, to secure Iraq's borders, and to provide humanitarian relief. To carry out such post-invasion missions, they favored an armed force of roughly 400,000 troops, which was far more than the 75,000 troops Rumsfeld was willing to provide (Fallows 2004, 43).

Three weeks before the invasion, the conflict became public when Shinseki claimed the United States needed at least “several hundred thousand troops” in the post-invasion phase of the war (Engel 2003, 1). Rumsfeld rebutted Shinseki by arguing that, “the idea that it would take several hundred thousand U.S. forces I think is far from the mark” (Gordon 2003, 1). Wolfowitz added,

[s]ome of the higher end predictions we have been hearing recently, such as the notion that it will take several hundred thousand U.S. troops to provide stability in post-Saddam Iraq are wildly off the mark. First, it is hard to conceive that it would take more forces to provide stability in post-Saddam Iraq than it would take to conduct the war itself and to secure the surrender of Saddam's security forces in his army. Hard to imagine. (Fallows 2004, 70)

Army Secretary White would later claim that “there is a certain amount of arrogance to both of them in this regard. Neither man I would say is burdened by a great deal of self-doubt. Their view is that they would be absolutely right . . . Our view is that they were terribly wrong” (White 2004). Success in a post-Hussein Iraq was certainly different for both neocons and realists.

While the decision to attack Iraq may represent a victory for the neocons, the post-war situation has lasted considerably longer and at a much greater cost in terms of casualties and money than originally thought by the administration.12 In fact, postwar Iraq highlights the stark differences between the two Bush administrations’ foreign policies. George H. W. Bush’s speech to West Point on January 5, 1993, is very instructive.

In every case involving the use of force, it will be essential to have a clear and achievable mission, a realistic plan for accomplishing the mission, and criteria no less realistic for withdrawing U.S. forces once the mission is complete. Only if we keep these principles in mind will the potential sacrifice be one that can be explained and justified. We must never forget that using force is not some political abstraction but a real commitment of our fathers and mothers and sons and daughters, brothers and sisters, friends and neighbors. You’ve got to look at it in human terms.


  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Presidential Management Systems and Advisory Structures
  4. Neocons and Realists
  5. Conclusion
  6. References

While Bush's first term foreign policy advisory structures provided a forum to advance policy interests, it was certainly not a narrow or closed political system. On the issue of war with Iraq, the Bush policy-making approach was certainly not characterized by a rigidly constructed hierarchical system with formal processes. The neocons and realists operated in a fluid presidential management environment in which policy decisions were often determined by interests and manipulative calculations. Clearly, internal battles were allowed to intensify because the president was uncomfortable with implementing a hierarchical or centralized foreign policy decision-making system.

The battles waged by the neocons and realists reflected foreign policy making structures typified by low centralization. Such a system is likely to produce stalemate due to opposing policy preferences, or may even lead one group or informal set of advisors to dominate foreign policymaking (George 1980, 8). However, in the case of invading Iraq, President Bush's pattern of delegation led to a process that placed greater influence in the hands of certain advisers who had little interest in building compromise. As a result, the neocons were more effective in pushing their preferred policies with the president and their inclinations prevailed over the realists.

In addition, the advisory structures created by the president were sustained more by the strong personalities and character traits that influenced policy making, rather than by formal processes. President Bush heard and accepted arguments that were made in the strongest personal fashion and expected that consensus among his advisers would immediately follow. He was also clearly in favor of those advisers who presented him with what he believed were decisive policy choices. For example, although Bush listened to Powell's contention that the United States had to at least make the attempt to obtain UN Security Council approval for an invasion, he ultimately embraced the stronger personalities of Cheney and Rumsfeld who argued in terms of America retaining the right to wage war in a unilateral fashion. The Bush administration's advisory structures were largely personal rather than procedural and driven by the president's desire for consensus.

George W. Bush's reelection in 2004 provides scholars with an opportunity to observe the continued conflict among realists and neocons over foreign policy, particularly Iraq policy. Whether this battle will continue with the intensity previously shown will depend upon the Bush administration's second term appointments. The departure of Powell and Armitage from the state department may have seriously undermined the ability of realists to influence foreign policy. Much also depends upon events in Iraq and elsewhere. A line repeated often by Bush on the reelection stump contended that “we are fighting the terrorists abroad so we do not have to face them here at home” (Bush, G. W. 2004). Shortly before the election, the American public appears to have taken the president's sentiment to heart and have accepted the neocon argument that attacking Iraq was not only justified, but is part of a larger war being waged on terrorism.13 Whether that will continue to be the case already seems doubtful.14 Further, in the event of another terrorist attack on American soil on Bush's watch, support for the Bush Doctrine, and with it the neocon perspective, is far from certain. Only time will tell how the war about the war will eventually play out.

  • 1

    As some have demonstrated, entrepreneurial advisors can manipulate the goals, dynamics, and structures of the advisory process to “win” the policy decision by capturing the “leader's ear.” See e.g. Hoyt and Garrison 1997; Garrison 1999; and Maoz 1990. Among the most important essential empirical studies that have examined management systems include Burke 2000; Walcott and Hult 1995; Hult and Walcott 2004; Joynt Kumar and Sullivan, eds. 2003; Moe 1985; Weko 1995; Rudalevige 2002; Hult 2000; and Patterson, Jr. 1988, 272.

  • 2

    Karen Hult observes that beginning with the Eisenhower administration, Republican presidents have tended to rely on more hierarchically designed management systems. For more on how President Bush's less hierarchical system compares to his predecessors, see Hult 2003.

  • 3

    Mann elaborates that Bush's inexperience in foreign policy allowed Cheney to serve as the “dominant influence” within the war cabinet.

  • 4

    The Neocons are also known as vulcans. Used primarily as a way of identifying their policy interests of unilateralism, idealism, and global preeminence with the Roman god who forged fire with iron, the source of the term vulcans can be traced to Paul Wolfowitz, Donald Rumsfeld, and Richard Perle in comparison with other Bush advisers. Two excellent studies on the rise of the neocons/vulcans are Daadler and Lindsay 2003, chapter 2; and Mann 2004. Also, a documentary that describes the general roles of the neocons was produced by the Public Broadcasting Service for Frontline. See: “The War Behind Closed Doors.” Available at:

  • 5

    For more on the Project for the New American Century, see Among the most visible members of the PNAC are: Elliot Abrams, Gary Bauer, William Bennett, Jeb Bush, Richard Cheney, Eliot Cohen, Steve Forbes, Francis Fukuyama, Donald Kagan, Lewis Libby, Dan Quayle, Donald Rumsfeld, and Paul Wolfowitz.

  • 6

    It is important to explain the use of the terminology in describing the policy interests of these two advocacy coalitions. While the neocons may be hawkish Reaganites, the realists are certainly not doves and should not be construed or interpreted as such. The realists believe in power politics and power balancing. While they are reluctant to use military force as a first choice, they certainly do not rule it out as an option. They simply believe that military force and U.S. military primacy should not be the driving forces of U.S. foreign policy. While the realists prefer to act with the broad support of international organizations and appear willing to make efforts to gather such support, they are prepared to engage in unilateral action as a measure of last resort. As George H. W. Bush said late in his presidency: “A desire for international support must not become a prerequisite for acting . . . Sometimes a great power has to act alone” (Bush, G. H. W. 1991).

  • 7

    President George H. W. Bush himself argued as much in 1998 (Bush and Stowcroft 1998).

  • 8

    In 1992, Bill Kristol served as Vice-President Dan Quayle's chief of staff. He described Scowcroft's displeasure: “I remember the day that appeared on the front page of the New York Times. I was Dan Quayle's chief of staff. I went to the White House senior staff meetings, I usually did at 7:30 in the morning. Brent Scowcroft, the national security adviser, attended that meeting. Though he was always very close-lipped and taciturn about his thoughts, it was clear there was unhappiness at the highest levels of the White House about this document. And, of course, the White House ordered that it be walked back” (Kristol 2002).

  • 9

    Among the signatories to the letter were Elliot Abrams, John Bolton, Francis Fukuyama, Robert Kagan, William Kristol, Richard Perle, Donald Rumsfeld, William Schneider Jr., Paul Wolfowitz, James Woolsey, and Robert Zoellick.

  • 10

    In an interview on September 12, 2001, former Clinton CIA Director James Woolsey told James Fallows of the Atlantic Monthly that “no matter who proved to be responsible for this [9/11] attack, the solution had to include removing Saddam Hussein, because he was so likely to be involved next time” (Fallows 2004, 55).

  • 11

    Many contend that the Bush administration purposely misled the American public about Iraq's WMD capability in an effort to manipulate public opinion (see especially Judis and Ackerman 2003; and Pfiffner 2004).

  • 12

    As of September 11, 2005, 1896 American soldiers have been killed in action in Iraq. From March 20, 2003 to May 1, 2003, the day President Bush declared that offensive military actions were over, 139 American troops were Killed In Action (KIA) compared with 1,757 KIA between May 1, 2003 and September 11, 2005. Since June 29, 2004, a new Iraqi government has been in place; however, since that time, 1,038 American soldiers and counting have been killed. Additionally, according to the Department of Defense, 14,265 American soldiers have been wounded in combat (through September 8, 2005). For more information see The monetary costs of the war are expected to exceed $149 billion. See Jonathan Weisman, “$25 Billion More Sought to Fund Wars,”Washington Post (May 6, 2004).

  • 13

    For example, in an ABC News poll conducted October 1–3, 2004, 49 percent of respondents felt the Iraq War was “worth it” and 60 percent viewed the Iraq War as “part of the war against terrorism.” These results are fairly consistent with other major polls conducted at the time.

  • 14

    For example, in a CBS News poll conducted August 29–31, 2005, only 33 percent of respondents agreed that “the war with Iraq was worth the loss of American life,” while 61 percent disagreed.


  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Presidential Management Systems and Advisory Structures
  4. Neocons and Realists
  5. Conclusion
  6. References
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