Pillar on Mintz and Wayne, 'The Polythink Syndrome: U.S. Foreign Policy Decisions on 9/11, Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran, Syria, and ISIS'

Alex Mintz, Carly Wayne. The Polythink Syndrome: U.S. Foreign Policy Decisions on 9/11, Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran, Syria, and ISIS. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2016. viii + 190 pp. $22.95 (paper), ISBN 978-0-8047-9676-7; $70.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8047-9515-9.

Reviewed by Paul R. Pillar (Georgetown University)
Published on H-Diplo (September, 2016)
Commissioned by Seth Offenbach

Scholarly analysis of foreign policy decision making has approached the subject along several different dimensions, some of which directly involve judgments about which types of decision processes tend to yield bad decisions rather than good ones. Among the best-known formulations is that of the psychologist Irving L. Janis regarding groupthink (Victims of Groupthink: A Psychological Study of Foreign-Policy Decisions and Fiascoes [1972]), a phenomenon in which the objective of maintaining concurrence in highly cohesive decision-making groups suppresses independent critical thinking and therefore tends to produce poor decisions. Alex Mintz and Carly Wayne offer a concept, which they term “polythink,” that is in most respects at the opposite end of the spectrum from groupthink. Polythink, as defined by the authors, “is essentially the presence of disagreement and dissent within the group making the decision” (p. 11). Their analysis weaves groupthink and polythink together, addressing how one or the other has prevailed at different times in the decision making under examination. The book’s main theme is that polythink can impair decision making just as much as, but in different ways from, groupthink. The authors’ ideal is a kind of happy medium that they dub “con-div,” representing a balance of convergence and divergence of group members’ viewpoints.

The authors apply their framework to a series of relatively recent US foreign policy decisions, as reflected in the book’s subtitle. They also go beyond US decision making, however, to address multilateral policymaking within coalitions and the United Nations and also look at an Israeli decision involving policy toward Iran. Most of the substantive material is suitable for this topic because it represents a range of experiences regarding the convergence or divergence of views of those taking part in the decisions. The decision making involved includes, for example, some very closed procedures in the George W. Bush administration as well as long and laborious discussion of alternative options in the Barack Obama administration.

For the most part the substantive stories being told are accurate and constitute well-documented case studies. There are exceptions. For example, the assertions regarding 9/11 that there was “nearly unanimous sentiment that an attack on the American homeland was impossible” and that there was “a fundamental misunderstanding of the threats that America faced from Osama bin Laden and his al-Qaeda terrorist network” are belied by the documentary record of what US security services were saying at the time (pp. 6, 38)—such as the intelligence community’s pre-9/11 statement of worldwide threats, which listed terrorism from bin Laden and al-Qaeda as the number one security threat facing the United States as of 2001.[1]

The special characteristics of some of the foreign and security issues involved in the selected cases muddy the waters regarding the groupthink-polythink continuum. The main issue involving 9/11 was not a decision at all but rather the challenge of uncovering a terrorist plot. The chapter on 9/11 plows familiar ground about communication lapses that may have contributed to the failure to uncover the plot, but this is a different problem from foreign policy decision making. As the authors correctly acknowledge, “in the absence of a major attack against the homeland, the national security policies needed to prevent such an attack may not have been politically tenable” (p. 45).

The Bush administration’s decision to invade Iraq in 2003 is a special case that defies analysis in groupthink/polythink terms. Extraordinarily, there was no policy process at all leading to that decision.[2] There never were any discussions or debates inside government about whether launching the war was a good idea; all prewar discussions about Iraq were focused on either selling or implementing the war. The deputy secretary of state at the time, Richard Armitage, later commented, “There was never any policy process.... There never was one from the start. Bush didn’t want one, for whatever reason.”[3] So the starting of the war was not really an instance of groupthink, as the authors categorize it, but rather of what might be called nothink.

Occasionally the authors of The Polythink Syndrome use conventional wisdom as a benchmark for judging which examples of decision making worked well and which did not. This leaves the analysis open to scrutiny. Regarding the Iraq War, for example, the authors take the “surge” of 2007 to be a success, which it was in the short-term sense of temporarily lowering the level of violence in Iraq. But it failed both in providing any lasting security and in achieving the main purpose of facilitating political accommodation among contending Iraqi factions, as underscored by the civil war in Iraq that has continued uninterrupted to this day.

The most fundamental weakness of the concept of polythink, as the authors use it in this book, is that it covers too much. An important asymmetry exists between polythink and groupthink, at least as far as Janis originally formulated the latter concept. Groupthink is not just any decision-making situation in which the participants have convergent views. It instead refers to a particular kind of small-group situation in which the camaraderie of the participants in effect becomes a higher priority than a well-considered policy decision. There is no comparable distinguishing characteristic of polythink. As Mintz and Wayne use the term, it seems to refer to just about any decision-making situation, international or national, in which participants have significantly divergent views. That’s not a specific political phenomenon; it is the nature of politics in general.

This book has significant value in putting the concept of groupthink—too often used carelessly and loosely—into a larger context and in making clear that it is part of a decision-making continuum, no one part of which has a monopoly on either good decisions or bad ones. The authors are admirably comprehensive in cataloging the many ways in which divergence as well as convergence of viewpoints can have advantages and disadvantages. The book’s contribution to the literature on decision making lies more with the context and framework it provides than with any non-obvious explanations for why particular US foreign policy decisions came out the way they did.


[1]. Director of Central Intelligence George J. Tenet, statement before the Select Committee on Intelligence, US Senate, “Worldwide Threat 2001: National Security in a Changing World,” , 107th Cong., 1st sess., February 7, 2001, https://www.cia.gov/news-information/speeches-testimony/2001/UNCLASWWT_02072001.html.

[2]. Paul R. Pillar, Intelligence and U.S. Foreign Policy: Iraq, 9/11, and Misguided Reform (New York: Columbia University Press, 2011), chap. 2.

[3]. Quoted in Ron Suskind, The One Percent Doctrine: Deep Inside America's Pursuit of Its Enemies since 9/11 (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2006), 225.                           

Printable Version: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showpdf.php?id=46927

Citation: Paul R. Pillar. Review of Mintz, Alex; Wayne, Carly, The Polythink Syndrome: U.S. Foreign Policy Decisions on 9/11, Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran, Syria, and ISIS. H-Diplo, H-Net Reviews. September, 2016.
URL: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=46927

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