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Strategy, Forces and Budgets: Dominant Influences in Executive Decision Making, Post-Cold War, 1989-91

Authored by Dr. Don M. Snider. | February 1993

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This study will present, using the process-tracking methodology of George and McKeown, 1 the executive decision making of the Bush administration during the 1989-90 period. During this period the administration decided "that by 1995 our security needs can be met by an active force 25 percent smaller than today's."2 This early public statement was an indication of a set of major decisions made by the administration to effect a defense draw-down for the post-cold war era, decisions on both military strategy and the forces needed to execute it.

Most of this decision making took place during the fall of 1989 and the spring and summer of 1990. Within the executive branch the decision making to be investigated took place simultaneously at multiple levels, from the individual military departments at the lowest level to the executive office of the President at the highest level. During this same period, there were also important interactions with the Congress which had quite significant influences on the decisions taken within the executive branch.

From this period, four events, or series of events, have been selected around which to report the results of this research. These events are:

    Decision making by the Chairman and the Joint Staff, and the Joint Chiefs; Decision making within the Office of the Secretary of Defense (OSD) by the Secretary, the Under Secretary of Defense for Policy, and his staff; Negotiations between the Executive and Congress leading to the Budget Act of 1990; and, Influences of the Gulf War on decision making for the defense build-down.

Recalling from George and McKeown that process tracking "involves both an attempt to reconstruct actors' definitions of the situation and an attempt to develop a theory of action,"3 much of what is presented here is the result of personal interviews with individuals involved in the decision processes. In each case that an interview is cited, appropriate decision documents have been reviewed, either before the interview or subsequently, and the verbal responses correlated with the written documentation.


What then were the major influences that created the Bush administration's post-cold war build-down plan, the new military strategy and the "base force" to execute it? What has been highlighted by this process of tracking the various events in administration decision making?

To answer that question, it should first be noted how well the decisions fared over time and to note whether the influences which created the decisions had any lasting power. With the arrival of the Clinton administration, it is clear that the build-down of U.S. military capabilities after the cold war will be divided into two phases, likely named for the respective Presidents responsible for each. The intent here is to note the degree to which the intent of the Bush administration decisions on the build-down were followed through, at least to the end of his tenure (the execution of the FY93 budget, roughly until October 1993), or whether they were thwarted, changed, or modified in some substantial way.

In my judgement, the plan has fared remarkably well since its inception in the early spring of 1990. The new military strategy has not been seriously questioned in any of its conceptual underpinnings for the use of conventional forces, and has served quite accurately as the organizing concepts around which forces were arrayed and employed successfully in several regional crises, most notably in Operation DESERT SHIELD/DESERT STORM. The basic strategic concepts of "presence" and "crisis response" are unquestioned today, even though the means to be employed in any situation is always debatable.

This is not to say, however, that every concept within the strategy has received the same level of support, either from academic strategists, or for that matter from the administration and Congress. The concept of "strategic deterrence and defense" is a case in point. As the potential for nuclear confrontation has further decreased since early 1990, in large part due to the administration's aggressive pursuit of further strategic arms control measures,96 support within both the administration and Congress for the means to implement the concept have changed significantly.97 A second example is the concept of "reconstitution." It was originally conceived in early 1990 as a means to provide for the re-creation of wholly new combat capability if needed in the instance of global conflict. As that prospect faded in the external security environment, the concept is now considered much less necessary for that purpose, and much more for the purpose of maintaining an efficient and credible industrial base for the provision of high technology military hardware well into the next century.

It can be said in a similar manner that the "base force" as originally designed by the administration has fared equally well, with one notable exception. Both the size of the active component forces and their relative disposition around the globe have turned out to be remarkably similar to tht originally envisioned by Powell and the other planners within the Pentagon, both civilian and military. While the original intent has held, residual U.S. forces in Europe will likely be reduced further early in the Clinton phase of the build-down.98 Even then, however, from the strategic perspective, the adjustment will be in means, rather than ends.

The only major exception to the Bush plan for the "base force" has been the refusal by Congress to reduce U.S. reserve forces by anything close to the plan offered by the administration.99 In this case it is clear that the external influence (end of the threat of global war) which created this part of the plan was not nearly so strong on congressional opinions as the contrary influence to preserve jobs in members' states and districts during a period of an economic slowdown and a national election.

Turning now to the major influences, it appears, without reference to intensity or priority, that the following were dominant in the minds and actions of administration decision makeers as the events unfolded.

The Changing External Security Environment. Obviously fundamental changes in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe drove the decision-making processes within the Bush administration. It is, afer all, supposed to happen that way! Events described earlier detail the extent to which the analysis of the NSR-12 review in the White House, and the individual study groups under Powell and Wolfowitz, were focused precisely on responding to and further influencing these events.

A Like-Minded View of Changing Circumstances by Senior Members of the Bush Administration. Even though external events were strongly influential, important also is the fact that they were interpreted in remarkably similar manner by the very small and somewht closed group of individuals that made the major decisions in the administration's build-down plan.100 There does not appear to have been any signfiicant disagreements among administration officials on interpreting external events as they apply to decision making for the build-down (this does not include crisis decision making by the same group during the same period). This does not imply that all of the like-minded perceptions were correct by some criteria (the common, but cautious view of the reversibility of changes in Russia and Eastern Europe may be one that was not), but simply that they were quite similar, even when arrived at independently. More important, the commonality of view also extended to what the administration needed to do in response to these changes, perhaps best documented publicly in general terms in the President's strategy report to Congress of March 1990. Such common view facilitates dealing with Congress as well as with the various power baronies of the Pentagon, notably the military departments.

It is not clear why so much commonality of perception prevailed. The type of closely-held decision process used clearly helped, but beyond that we must speculate.101 Likely causes would be common sources of intelligence (even though all of these people had independent access to other sources, especially foreign ones), and, except for Scowcroft, common experiences in senior positions in previous administrations dealing with the same foreign actors and issues.102

Congressional Views of External Changes. Until Senator Nunn's March-April speeches, the administration did not really have to be too concerned about the proposals of individual members of Congress, who naturally took quite different views from one another as to the size and pace of the anticipated build-down and where the peace dividend was to be applied. Nor could the administration respond in any detail, since it had not yet finished its own planning. But with Nunn's presentations, it was apparent that even defense supporters in Congress were willing to consider steeper reductions than the administration thought prudent. In the interbranch context, which institution was going to be in the lead in the build-down also became an issue. Cheney, in particular, was keenly aware of the political dangers involved for the administration, as well as for his department, and sensitive to the need to "have a good story to tell to the members of Congress."103 Even a casual reading of the administration's testimonies for FY92 (January-April 1991), particularly those of Cheney, Powell and Wolfowitz, shows the unusual degree to which they reacted to these concerns, all the more unusual because these testimonies were prepared and delivered simultaneous to the conduct of the Gulf War. But the fact remains, administration decision makers were keenly aware of, and influenced by, the potential of independent, and undesirable, congressional action.

Domestic Economic Influences. There can be no doubt that executive decision makers, as well as leaders in both institutions party to this issue of building down America's defenses, were very strongly--perhaps most strongly--influenced by domestic economic problems. The influences varied over time.As the Bush administration came in office in early 1989, they brought a consensus that "this government is financially broke," and priority must be placed on reducing the twin deficits of budget and trade. Later in 1990 it was the ballooning Federal deficit and the likelihood of sequestration that was unacceptable for both branches. Still later in 1991, after the negotiated Budget Act, the job losses and slow recovery in the domestic economy made the Congress reluctant to fight for further defense reductions in FY92, or even to authorize some of the administration's planned reductions for FY92 and FY93.

Even after the Budget Act of 1990 defused this issue for a time, the influence from Congress continued as was noted earlier in the section on the Gulf War. The subsequent Aspin-Powell debate (summer 1992) over capability- versus threat-based force structures was in one sense a continuation of the "who is in charge of the build-down" issue. More fundamentally, however, it was a replay of the differing partisan views on deficit reduction and early posturing for the national campaign--identifying differences in the party's approaches to defense, with the Democrats displaying a less expensive option. As such, it maintained continuing pressure on the administration, however successfully countered, to review the original decisions.

A Strong Chairman of the Joint Chiefs. The post-World War II history of attempts by both administrations and congresses to impose some form of unity and centralized direction on the America's military departments shows few successes until 1986.104 This is all the more true in periods of declining resources for defense. However, for the executive decisions that are the object of this case study, that history changed dramatically. Powell's influence, both personally and institutionally, in the shaping of these decisions by a unified military response was remarkably strong.

Obviously the various aspects of the influence of a "strong Chairman" on executive decision making cannot be separated one from another. But further identification of how this influence was manifested is possible, and helpful for these conclusions.

First was Powell's unique strategic vision. As we have seen, Powell had extensive experiences with the changing world scene well before becoming Chairman. Never before has the nation had a Chairman who had served as National Security Advisor to the President, much less during a period such as 1987-89. He had a strategic vision that assigned a role to the nation in the future world, and which included many of the means to fulfill that role--continuing alliances, deepening economic interdependence with other democracies, negotiating a smaller nuclear umbrella, keeping superior maritime capabilities and ready fighting forces to project power when needed, and producing a "much smaller force" that will cost "much less money."105

In particular, this vision allowed him, more quickly that most of his uniformed contemporaries, to move beyond the Soviet threat as the basis for force planning, and to arrive at a new strategy, new force level, and pace of build-down that were appropriate to the changing world and had a chance of being supported in Congress. While their limited vision caused many in uniform to remain in the risk minimization mode, Powell realized the nation had quickly discounted future risks coming from the cold war, and he moved on with a vision to minimize costs consistent with the reduced capabilities of a residual superpower.106

Historians will debate the accuracy of his vision, but the importance for this case study on decision making is that it existed, with clarity, and that he effectively used it and its further development within the Pentagon to create "that picture of future changes desired by government elites."107

Second, Powell's influence was manifested through the strengthened institutional role of the Chairman. Historians correctly remind us of the "symbiotic relationship between strategic vision and decisive authority,"108 each insufficient without the other, even more so in the policy processes within the executive branch. But in this case Powell also had the "decisive authority" in terms of the strengthened institutional role mandated in the Goldwater-Nichols legislation.Relationships between the Chairman and the other Joint Chiefs were simply different than they had ever been before, with the service Chiefs now unable to use an institutional role to force incorporation of their views. Given the differences in recent professional experiences, as well as Powell's standing in the Bush administration, there was a understandable inclination toward nonconfrontation. And, Powell needed to balance the Chiefs' views with those of the Unified Commanders-in-Chief, who also received via the Goldwater-Nichols legislation greatly strengthened positions. The service Chiefs' views were now considered in this broader context on the merit of their content, with the Chairman's advice to political leaders remaining singular, except as their views were incorporated into his.109

Third, and last, Powell's influence was manifested in a unified strategy with which he avoided the problem he had observed so closely while serving as Weinberger's military assistant during the Reagan era buildup of U.S. defense capabilities--the autonomy of the services manifested in separate military strategies for which each justified and built forces largely unintegrated with each other. This was also the means by which they effectively communicated their needs to parochial supporters on the Hill.110

By the time the first crisis of the post-cold war era arrived, actually only a few months into the era, Powell and the Joint Staff had developed the new, unified military strategy, which was executed forcefully by the unified commanders involved, particularly Schwarzkopf in Central Command. As we have seen, these events in the Gulf War validated, both within the military profession and to the general public, the conceptual underpinnings of the new military strategy and the enhanced role of joint, unified commanders waging theater campaigns.

Shortly thereafter, the White House published an outline of the new defense strategy in the Bush administration's second report to Congress on national security strategy (August 1991). Powell and his staff subsequently published an unclassified version of the complete military strategy in time for administration testimony for FY93 (January 1992) . This intentional declassification of the strategy for more effective public communications was the last step in the series of events that effectively ended the era of individual service strategies. Of course, the early relief by the Secretary of Defense of one of the service Chiefs for publicly advocating his service's role in the Gulf War at the expense of the joint effort only reinforced the joint approach Powell and the unified commanders had taken. It is not by coincidence that the post-Gulf War strategies" of each service now reflect most strongly their contribution to joint warfare, rather than the unintegrated approach of the 1980s, the last era of service autonomy in such matters. "111

Having discussed the major influences on executive decision making, it would also be helpful to discuss those influences that research did not show to be as strong as hypothesized. The first is the role played by the traditional decision-making process of the Pentagon, the PPBS. It was not influential because thesedecisions were of a planning nature, whereas the PPBS is designed for the primary purpose of programming and budgeting, not planning. Sound cost-effectiveness analysis cannot be done until the missions for which military force is to be used have been identified and their scope delineated. And that was being done for the first time in the post-cold war era by the study groups under Powell and Wolfowitz.

Concluding this does not mean the PPBS was not used during this period. To be sure, meetings were scheduled and the right people attended, guidance was issued and revised as the budget negotiations came to fruition, and the services and defense agencies did produce the programs and budgets necessary to implement the plans. But the point is the decisions were the plans, which preceded the use of the PPBS for their implementation. As one attendee put it, "The DPRB meetings were rather anti-climatic, a time for expected speeches for or against decisions already made. Really, we could have done without most of them."112

The second decision-making system that was not influential was that of the National Security Council. The system implemented early in the Bush administration called for a hierarchy of interagency committees to work crises and policy issues requiring Presidential involvement, culminating with the Deputies Committee, chaired by Scowcroft's deputy, Robert Gates, and the National Security Council itself, chaired by the President.113 There appears to have been no meetings of these groups to consider the strategy and force structure decisions associated with the build-down of U.S. forces during this period.

Two factors contributed to this. The first was the pace of events already transpiring within the NSC system. It was simply jammed with issues from several sets of arms control negotiations (START, CFE, CSCE, and the Chemical Weapons Convention to note but four) and other issues flowing from the end of the cold war (reunification of Germany, reorientation of NATO), as well as the military crises in Panama and later in the Gulf. The other reason is seen in the nature of the decisions being made-- centered within one cabinet department and viewed by some of the senior decision makers as part of a larger domestic economic problem, which are not the type decision normally taken to the NSC . 114

Again as with the PPBS, not too much should be made of this conclusion. The right people made the decisions, and all the research shows they made them for what they perceived to be the correct reasons.


1. Alexander L. George and Timothy J. McKeown, "Case Studies and Theories of Organizational Decision Making" in Advances in Information Processing in Organizations, JAI Press,

Inc., 1985, pp. 21-58.

2. President George Bush, Address to the Aspen Institute, Aspen, Colorado, August 2, 1992, White House Press Office, mimeograph, p. 2.

3. George and McKeown, "Case Studies and Theories of Organizational Decision Making," p. 35.

96. For a brief review of these efforts see Annual Report of the Secretary of Defense to the President and the Congress, Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, January 1993, pp. 14-16 and 67-69.

97. As demonstrated by the Missile Defense Act of 1991, a limited strategic defense program initially enjoyed relatively widespread support on both sides of the aisle and in both chambers. (See "Key Votes of 1991," Congressional Quarterly, Vol. 49, No. 52, December 28, 1991, p. 3765, pp. 3774-3775.) Within one year, however, this support for a limited national strategic defense system had been significantly eroded. During the FY93 Defense Authorization process, both chambers acted to significantly reduce SDI spending from $5.4 billion to $4.0 billion and to shift its focus away from the national system envisioned in the Missile Defense Act to a theater missile defense system to protect U.S. crisis response forces when deployed overseas.

98. For one proposal, see Don M. Snider, "U.S. Military Forces in Europe: How Low Can We Go?", Survival, Winter 1992- 1993, pp. 24-39.

99. Congress, House Committee on Armed Services, "FY93 Defense Authorization Act, House-Senate Conference, Summary of Major Actions," Washington, DC: House Armed Services Committee, October 1, 1992, pp. 17-20.

100. That small group would include Cheney, Powell, Wolfowitz, and perhaps O'Keefe, in the Pentagon; Baker, Bartholomew, and Ross at State; Scowcroft, Gates and Kanter on the NSC; and, of course, the President.

101. Wolfowitz attributes this to "process," in that the very close-hold nature of the two initial studies allowed administration officials to examine issues and change positions.

102. Cheney supports this idea, noting previous, mutual experiences in the Ford and Reagan administrations.

103. A lot was unstated in our work [in the Bush

104. administration] since Brent, Jim and I had all worked together over the years. Brent was in Ford's White House when I was chief of staff there. I hired Jim Baker to run Ford's reelection campaign. And I was the minority leader in the House during the Reagan years when Jim was in the White House and Treasury, and Bush was the Vice President. Colin was in there for a time also as the National Security Advisor.

105. Cheney, remarks at U.S. Army War College.

106. Howard interview, Wolfowitz interview, and Cheney remarks, U.S. Army War College.

107. The best, recent treatment of attempts to harness service autonomy, especially as it pertains to conflict in the 21st century is C. Kenneth Allard, Command, Control, and the Common Defense, New Haven: Yale University Press, 1991, especially Chapters 2, 3 and 4.

108. Powell made several speeches early in his tenure in which he "gazed into the crystal ball" to share his vision. References here are from a speech to civic leaders on March 29,1990, the Broadmoor Hotel, Colorado Springs, Colorado.

109. The historical alternation of emphasis in U.S. defense policy between risk-minimization and cost-minimization is amplified in David Jablonsky, "Strategic Vision and Presidential Authority in the Post-Cold War Era," Parameters, Vol. XXI, No. 4, Winter 1991-1992, p. 2.

110. Ibid.

111. Idem.

112. Of course, the Goldwater-Nichols legislation created the option for any service Chief to request through the Chairman to present his views directly to the Secretary of Defense or to the Commander-in-Chief (the President). During the decisions on the new military strategy and the base force, the Chiefs met frequently with the Secretary of Defense as a group, normally weekly. There appears to be no record of any Chief asking to meet with the President to present views separate from those of the Chairman.

113. For an example of policies designed, and partially implemented, to correct this problem of excessive service autonomy in strategy formulation, see Chapter 1 of President's Blue Ribbon Commission on Defense Management, A Quest for Excellence-Final Report to the President, Washington, DC, White House printing, June 1986, pp. 9-31.

114. During 1991-92 each of the services published a new, unclassified service "strategy": "Global Power, Global Reach" by the Air Force; "From the Sea" by the Navy; and "Strategic Response" by the Army.

115. Welch, interview.

116. Each administration designs the decision-making system of the National Security Council to fit the needs of the President and his style of leadership/management. The Bush administration published unclassified guidance for their approach in NSDD#1, January 2O,l989. For a discussion of different approaches of other administrations, see Karl F. Inderfurth and Loch K. Johnson, Decisions of the Highest Order. Perspectives on the National Security Council, Pacific Grove: Brooks/Cole Publishing, 1988.

117. 114. Powell offers an alternative view, "There was no NSC system then." Powell, interview.