Bureaucratic Roles & Positions: Explaining The U.S./Libya Decision

Bureaucratic Roles and Positions: Explaining the United States Libya Decision



Mikael Blomdahla*

pages 142-161

Diplomacy and Statecraft, 2016, 27:1, 142-161.





This analysis examines the decision-making process of the Barack Obama Administration that led to the American decision in March 2011 to intervene in Libya. Its focus is whether the bureaucratic politics model of foreign policy decision-making can accurately explain the situation. In this case, finding mixed empirical support for the explanatory power of bureaucratic politics, it contributes to the further development of the model for foreign policy decision-making.

In early March 2011, as violence in Libya intensified, the Arab League unexpectedly voted in favor of a no-fly zone over Libya. The Barack Obama Administration changed course from reluctance about military action to press for United Nations [UN] authorization of military action to protect Libyan civilians from the regime’s attack. On 17 March, UN Security Council Resolution 1973 passed, authorizing “all necessary means” to this end.1 Two days later, cruise missile and bomber strikes from an American-led coalition destroyed Libya’s air-defense systems, forced its armored columns to retreat, and established a no-fly zone over the country.2 On 19 March 2011, Obama ordered American forces to launch attacks against Libyan military targets—it constituted the first war that his Administration began on its own. Afterwards, Obama used force in Libya for the avowed reason of protecting lives in a place that most of his advisers argued lacked any compelling American strategic interest.3 Instead of seeking authority from Congress, the president turned for legal support to the UN and the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation [NATO]. Two days later, when notifying Congress about the American participation in the campaign, Obama declared it limited in its “nature, duration, and scope.”4 The United States initially took a more cautious approach. France and Britain assumed the lead in pushing the international community to intervene militarily to protect Libyan civilians an approach that sparked a debate whether Washington was “leading from behind.”5

The United States has a long tradition of using force unilaterally, as well as participating in UN-mandated operations. However, since the beginning of the Arab Spring, the Obama Administration had been grappling with how America should respond to the democratic uprisings sweeping the region. Several factors worked against support for intervention in Libya, and this case highlights problems of intervention amidst pressures from both domestic and international factors. At the international level, Washington was withdrawing from two unpopular and messy wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Domestically, the Administration faced Congressional criticism, public war-weariness, and financial constraints. Given these conditions, combined with the reluctance of defense officials from the other major NATO Powers to become involved in Libya, there seemed little prospect for any American participation.6 For example, previous analysis of the Libya intervention has examined the viability of NATO, humanitarian interventions, and international law but does not discuss American decision-making in detail.7 And accounts based solely on international factors do not capture the American inter-branch disputes that also appear to have shaped the Libya decision. An analysis based on bureaucratic politics within the American government can, therefore, further the understanding of the decision to intervene.8

Three central reasons exist for doing so. First, taking as its point of departure formal theories of foreign policy decision-making, no single in-depth investigation into why the United States decided to participate exists. A research gap therefore confronts foreign policy analysis regarding the Libyan decision-making process. Second, critics of the Bureaucratic Politics Model [BPM] usually claim a serious weakness in its clarifying power:9 it is less effective in explaining crisis decision-making than offering insights into the workings of government in calmer, more settled times.10 Finally, the American Libya decision offers an opportunity to examine the extent to which the BPM approach explains crisis decision-making.

The Libyan decision received widespread media coverage, revealing the key Administration players and their associated policy preferences as well as the highly political nature of the debate. From the day the bombing began, there was no shortage of critics—including public disclosure of dissenting opinions amongst American military and civilian officials. It soon became clear that Obama’s national security advisers divided over what course to pursue.11 The decision also confronted both skepticism and reluctance in Congress and moderate support from the American public.12 This setting suggests that analysis based on bureaucratic politics within the government offers a promising avenue to examine the context, background, and nature of the decision for intervention. At the same time, such an analysis can gauge the strengths and weaknesses of BPM. Admittedly, this exegesis does not claim that bureaucratic factors are the only important ones in the Libya decision. However, analyses using this model have been largely theoretical rather than empirical, and several scholars suggest that as this model is complex, it is not certain what would falsify its predictions.13 The need for more testing of BPM is, therefore, clear.14Accordingly, employing it to examine the policy preferences and bureaucratic politics that influenced this controversial post-9/11 American foreign policy decision is essential.15

The bureaucratic politics paradigm is most closely associated with Graham Allison’s path-breaking work on decision-making within the John F. Kennedy Administration during the 1962 Cuban missile crisis.16 Since then, considerable criticism about BPMs and foreign policy has emerged. One of the common criticisms is that BPM is too complex, too “thick,” to yield testable hypotheses, and that bureaucrats’ power and influence are over-stated by the model.17 Other scholars reject the model’s apparent de-emphasis of the role of the president. For example, Stephen Krasner argued that presidents set the rules of the game and select the players in foreign policy decision-making; Jerel Rosati concluded that presidential dominance is prevalent when presidential involvement is high. Therefore, in critical issues, like those touching national security, one can expect presidential dominance; more routine ones involving foreign policy will likely evoke bureaucratic control.18 Much of the criticism has been limited to its logic, rather than empirical verification. Yet, plausibility and logical simplicity have given it continuing influence.19

Allison adumbrated three models to illuminate the factors and processes that can shape government action. The first, the rational actor model, presumes that the state is a unitary actor; policy-makers share common goals, conduct cost-benefit analyses, and select optimal policy solutions when confronted with foreign policy problems. The second focuses on organisational behavior where choices available to current policy-makers are framed by decisions and goals established by their predecessors. Known as the governmental or BPM, the third model introduced the concepts of bureaucratic role, role position, and organisational mission and essence into the calculus of decision-making.20 Actors favor policy options that fulfil their bureaucratic role and enhance their power—a “stand-sit” proposition. Thus, the mission of bureaucratic actors is to pursue and realize the interests of their organisation, say diplomats in the State Department.21 Their positions within government and associated bureaucratic roles largely, but not exclusively, determine actors’ policy positions.22 Government actions are political and, thus, not the product of cost-benefit analyses.

Political competition is crucial to bureaucratic politics, and government decisions are the products of “pulling and hauling” between actors—a “bargaining” proposition. Bureaucratic actors involved in the bargaining processes not only differ concerning their policy preferences but also with respect to power. In the BPM, power comprises three elements: the advantages of actors in bargaining processes, an actor’s will and ability to use these advantages, and the other players` perceptions of those elements. Thus, power is inherent in bureaucratic position and determines what an actor can and must do. Whilst players assume preferences and adopt stands based on “parochial priorities and perceptions,” each player’s impact on results will be centrally a function of their relative bargaining power amongst the others. The broader political context will also affect the nature of inter-action, and actors need to be adept at using action-channels for influencing government action on particular issues. An action-channel is a regularized means of ensuring governmental action on a specific kind of issue.23

Under this model, however, viewing individual players as rational, the outcome of their inter-action does not reflect a careful cost-benefit analysis but, rather, a political resultant. As argued by Allison, “Each player pulls and hauls with the power at his discretion for outcomes that will advance his conception of national, organisational, group, and personal interests”—a resultant proposition.24 The decision-making process will aggregate politically through such means as bargaining, coalition building, and compromise. This political result reflects decisions and actions of individuals and groups of players in multiple inter-actions; the final decision will not reflect the preferred option of any one individual or leader. Instead, the final decision as a compromise reflects the impact of political pulling and hauling.25 The BPM, thus, argued that players in position adopt stands and agendas based on parochial priorities and perceptions; policy outcomes reflect these parochial concerns and the players’ relative power, the nature of action-channels, and the rules of the game.26

To determine whether bureaucratic politics matter, it is necessary to establish what sort of behavior patterns BPMs would expect. One way to assess the BPM is to distill core assumptions from it, infer from them a set of expected behaviors, and match them against the facts.27 This approach will test the Libyan decision-making process.28 The first assumption is that players’ stands on issues will derive from their role and position, something neatly summarized in the well-known aphorism “Where you stand depends on where you sit.” In this situation, the Obama Administration should therefore divide over options, goals, interests, and policy preferences: players’ policy preferences deriving chiefly from their positions within the government. If bureaucracy truly shapes and influences the stands players take, then one would expect those from different bureaucracies to assume different preferences and others from the same bureaucracy to assume similar ones.29 Hence, it is necessary to examine key actors from similar and different bureaucracies who influenced Libyan intervention decision-making, especially in committee settings.

Based on that examination, the first test in the Libyan case is to evaluate whether the position of advisers within government predicts policy preferences. For example, when comparing the predilections of Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who each of whom played critical roles, the expectation is that they would “differ radically” based on the pressure and nature of their positions.30 The difference in bureaucratic roles here is that Gates, formally represented within the Department of Defense as the Office of the Secretary of Defense [OSD], is responsible for managing the Pentagon bureaucracy as well as the military.31 The State Department, on the other hand, co-ordinates and directs the civilian diplomacy of the United States and works with ambassadors to implement political policy and provide advice and recommendations to the president on foreign policy issues.32 State often maintains an institutional aversion to escalation of American military deployments.33

Within the Obama Administration, another expectation is that the preferences of Gates and Admiral Michael McMullen, the chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff [CJCS], will not be the same on all issues.34 Formally designated as the president’s personal military adviser, the CJCS acts as the senior representative of the armed forces. Yet, the secretary and CJCS will not have considerably different preferences since they face similar bureaucratic pressures within the Department of Defense. In other words, one should not expect a greater difference in preferences between Gates and Mullen, than between the CJCS and the secretary of state. This situation results from the bureaucratic setting and pressures that the secretary of defense and CJCS face in their department, which are more similar than those confronting the secretary of state.35

second key assumption in the model is that players will not only hold different policy preferences, they will endorse different recommendations, bargain over outcomes, and generate conflict. The real question is not whether they will do so, but to what extent. Based on this issue, bargaining influence and action-channels are crucial elements of the model. Bargaining influence in this analysis means that some actors influence decisions more than the rest. That is to say, they have the ability to gain the president’s confidence. They are willing to assume responsibility, and their staff is skilled in performing bureaucratic functions. They exercise finesse in threatening to leak information or resign.36 As noted above, since government action also occurs through action-channels, these channels may be formal or informal and determine which players enter the games with particular advantages and handicaps.37

Actors, such as the National Security Council [NSC], which co-ordinates foreign and defense policy, and the White House Office are expected both to seek flexibility and political protection for the president.38 The NSC’s bureaucratic role commands that it develops multiple policy options, provide advice and information to the president, and manage the inter-agency process. The NSC has a bureaucratic interest in preserving flexibility for the president and realizing his or her foreign policy preferences.39 The White House Office is an important component of the Executive Office of the President and includes the chief of Staff and the Office of the Vice President. Usually the president’s closest personal adviser, the chief of staff heads the White House Office and often attends NSC meetings.40 The vice president has little formal role and no official bureaucratic constituency. Nonetheless, a vice president can become influential in foreign policy decision-making.41

The third assumption is that the decision-making process will produce choices that reflect a political result or compromise: typically a combination of inputs representing the views and stands of different players. Since political results represent multiple, competing, and sometimes ad hoc inputs that derive from bargaining and compromise, no one actor can expect to dominate them or be able to predict the outcome. Rather, the outcome is a function of loose, bureaucratic politics and not the result of objective cost-benefit analyses.42 These elements of actors’ influence in the Libyan decision can be examined by utilizing the following question set.43

1.     Who were the relevant actors in the decision-making process?

2.     What were the policy preferences of these actors?

3.     Did bureaucratic interests influence the policy preferences of actors and, if so, how?

4.     Did actors employ bargaining influence and was government action taken through action channels and, if so, how?

5.     Did political pulling and hauling produce a final decision outcome that was a political result or compromise and, if so, how?


The question set provides the analytical framework of this case study as it examines the events of the Libyan decision-making process.

Key players in the decision-making process who opposed a military alternative included Gates, Mullen, National Security Adviser Thomas Donilon, Deputy National Security Adviser Denis McDonough, Vice President Joe Biden, Chief of Staff William Daley, and counter-terrorism chief John O. Brennan.44 Actors supporting the military alternative included Clinton, NSC Senior Director Gayle Smith, NSC Senior Director for Multilateral Affairs and Human Rights Samantha Power, the ambassador to the UN, Susan Rice, Deputy National Security Adviser for Strategic Communication Ben Rhodes, the ambassador to NATO, Ivo Daalder, and NSC Director for Human Rights Jeremy Weinstein. These actors along with Obama served as the key players in the case.

By late February 2011, Obama had begun a series of discussions on how to handle Libya. His advisers broke down into two distinct camps. On the critical side, given the continued American presence in Afghanistan and Iraq, were top-level Pentagon and White House advisers skeptical of further military intervention,45 This group included Gates, who dubbed calls for intervention “loose talk.”46 From the outset, Gates was amongst the most vocal skeptics against the proposal for a no-fly zone over Libya. For him, a no-fly zone would be deficient and, in the end, ground troops would require deployment. On 2 March, during a hearing before the Senate, Gates said “Let’s just call a spade a spade. A no-fly zone begins with an attack on Libya to destroy the air defenses … and then you can fly planes around the country and not worry about our guys being shot down.”47Gates pointed to American economic realities after Iraq and Afghanistan, which were not the best. The lack of post-war planning as well as uncertainties about who the rebels were—including if they had any connexions to the terrorist group Al-Qaeda—also played a role.48 Mullen shared these concerns, saying in a Pentagon news conference that a no-fly zone would be “an extraordinarily complex operation to set up” and pulling back from earlier comments by Clinton that military options were under active consideration.49 Like Gates, Mullen was very reluctant, and viewing the crisis largely in military terms, did not assume a “hawkish” stand.

Donilon and McDonough, known within the Administration as pragmatists highly protective of the president, and together with Brennan, leaned towards Gates’ position. They were skceptical, and urged caution.50 In a briefing on 11 March, they clearly downplayed military alternatives and, emphasizing the importance of others, said for example that: “The isolation of the regime matters. Denying the regime resources matters.”51 Donilon and McDonough often viewed foreign policy through the lens of national interests rather than values.52 Other actors doubtful of another military commitment for over-stretched American forces included Biden, who had argued strongly against Obama’s decision in 2009 on the Afghanistan surge. He thought that involvement in Libya was misguided and, politically, nothing but a downside.53 Concerned about how the government would to explain to the American people “why we’re in Libya,”54 Daley sided with Biden. Intelligence community assessments did not help the case for intervention. The director of National Intelligence, James Clapper, testified before Congress that the Libyan dictator, Muammar Qaddafi, possessed so much more in armaments and equipment than the opposition that his troops were likely to prevail in the end.55 In sum, these actors expressed caution in how to handle the Libyan situation. Enforcement of a no-fly zone would require scarce air assets, domestic political approval, international authorization, and divert resources from the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

On the other side of the division within the Administration was a faction within the White House and the State Department. The latter had all along divided on how to act in Libya, and Clinton was dubious about any military actions.56 At first, she supported Gates and worried that if an intervention failed to remove Qaddafi, or failed to gain enough international support, it would jeopardize American credibility.57 Yet, on 1 March, she said that a no-fly zone was not off the table.58 After the Arab League requested UN action on 12 March, Clinton seemed to split from Gates and work actively for intervention. The rapid developments on the ground, Clinton traveling to Europe and North Africa, and a private meeting with National Transitional Council of Libya representatives in Paris saw her shift her view: international support for such a mission seemed possible.59 In an interview, she stated that the UN-backed intervention in Libya is “a watershed moment in international decision-making.”60

In her capacity as UN ambassador, Rice had a primary duty to keep the State Department informed of events at New York, and she played a major role in the passing of UN Resolution 1973.61 On 16 March, and as one of the most vocal interventionist from the outset, Rice signaled publicly for the first time that the Obama Administration supported the Security Council’s discussion of further international steps, including a no-fly zone in Libya. According to Rice, it was necessary to be prepared to contemplate steps that might go beyond, a no-fly zone, given its inherent limitations in protecting civilians at immediate risk.62 Within the NSC, a group of staff members joined ranks with Rice and pushed for military intervention. They belonged to the core of a White House group that argued the case for humanitarian intervention.63 Power had devoted much of her professional career to the question of how to prevent mass killings. Alongside Rice, she was the second senior official who had come into the Obama Administration determined to prevent any further atrocities like those in Bosnia or Rwanda.64Other staff members within this group included Rhodes, Smith, and Weinstein.65 In early March, when Qaddafi’s forces began to move toward the eastern city of Benghazi, this group together with Rice began to support the use of force if necessary to stop mass killings.66

The evidence that bureaucratic roles influenced policy is strongest in the case of intervention opponents. Gates had a clear bureaucratic interest in not supporting the intervention. The role of the secretary of defense imposed that he manage the armed forces and safeguard that the military was capable of securing and defending American national security interests. Gates was facing impending series of major defense spending cuts in response to the economic downturn and debt crisis that paralyzed the American political system throughout spring and summer 2011.67 These heavy reductions placed an immediate constraint on current and future American military operations.68 Believing that a Libyan intervention was not a vital national interest, Gates expressed concerns about how over-stretched and tired the military was. In testimony before the Senate, he said that taking on another major commitment is “a very great worry for me.”69 In various meetings, he would ask, “Can I just finish the two wars we’re already in before you go looking for new ones?”70 Moreover, Gates knew he was leaving soon his post and was more willing than usual to speak his mind.71

Gates was often furious with the White House and the NSC and, during a meeting at Defense on 28 February with Mullen amongst others, said:

Don’t give the White House Staff and NSS too much information on the military options … . They don’t understand it and “experts” like Samantha Power will decide when we should move militarily.”72

According to Gates, Obama’s White House tightly controlled every aspect of national security policy and was by far the most centralized and controlling in national security of any since Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger. It got so bad during internal debates over whether to intervene in Libya that Gates says he felt compelled to deliver a “rant” because the White House staff was “talking about military options with the president without Defense being involved.”73 In his memoirs, he expressed outright contempt for Biden and many of Obama’s top aides.

As the senior representative of the armed forces, Mullen maintained a bureaucratic interest in arguing against the intervention. Responsible for providing the president with military advice and generating various options for strategy, he was also accountable for ensuring that the military was capable of satisfying the demands placed upon it by the Administration. Mullen had publicly declared in a CNN interview in 2010 that the national debt was the principal threat to American national security.74 Overall, he shared Gates’ view about the military being over-extended, and additional manpower demands represented a threat to its capabilities.75 For Mullen, any form of backlash in Libya would present a threat to the bureaucratic role and interests of the armed forces.76 Thus, concern for the ability of the military to fulfill its core mission of protecting American national interests influenced his policy preferences.77

Obama’s advisers basically had a great deal in common in terms of their foreign policy objectives, but there existed critical differences regarding Libya. Donilon and McDonough remained close in political views and sided with the Pentagon.78Donilon did not support intervention based on his staffers’ evaluations of Libya, and he warned the president against using force in a situation not of vital interest for the United States.79 Instead, it seemed more important to assert his bureaucratic role as the head of the inter-agency process and ensure that the president received alternative options. Maintaining an important bureaucratic role as presidential adviser, Biden also opposed the Libya intervention for bureaucratic reasons. He sought to preserve presidential freedom of action and, arguing that the risks were simply too high, it would be better not to intervene than immerse American forces in a battle between Qaddafi and his people. Such a course would be politically unwise.80 Biden often disagreed with Gates, but this time he sided with the secretary and Donilon, a personal friend.81 As chief of staff, Daley worked to implement the president’s policy preferences and ensure political protection for Obama. Worried about involvement in a third Moslem country, he emphasized the need for joint operations with American allies. Any Libyan intervention naturally represented a significant risk to Obama’s popularity and threatened support for signature domestic policy initiatives.82 Military operations overseas were fatiguing the American public, and polling in the second week of March found that less than one-third of Americans favored helping the rebels militarily.83

The White House or Pentagon did much of the handling of the Middle East during Clinton’s tenure as secretary of state.84 Yet, she had maneuvered herself into a central player within this element of the Administration’s foreign policy-making.85 As secretary of state, she was expected to favor policy options emphasizing diplomacy and enhancing the role, prestige, and power of the State Department in Washington. Clinton ultimately supported intervention and formed a unified front with Rice, Power, Smith, and Rhodes. Why did Clinton change her mind? In a sign of Gates’ declining influence, Clinton might have seen a bureaucratic opportunity to gain State Department influence in decision-making over Libya.86 As Halperin and Clapp argue, changes in personnel are likely viewed as opportunities to seek new policy decisions.87 More important for this change, however, were three preconditions: two diplomatic and one humanitarian.

First, on 12 March, the Arab League came out in favor of a no-fly zone. Over the following days on visits to Paris, Cairo, and Tunis, Clinton met with both Arab leaders and those of the Libyan opposition. She reported to Obama that the regional leaders were serious and even willing to take part in military operations.88 According to Clinton, it was not just “hollow calls for action.”89 Second, British and French officials privately made clear that they not only wanted but also expected America to join them. For Clinton, the British foreign secretary’s, William Hague’s, positive stand on a military intervention “counted for a lot.”90 Third, in Libya, Qaddafi’s forces were approaching Benghazi where a large group of civilians could soon become defenseless at the hands of Libyan troops. Therefore, the horizons for diplomacy were limited, and Clinton took a decisive step: she came down on the side of intervention, supporting the views of Rice and Power.91 At a minimum, she had a responsibility to insist on multi-lateralism, and it was thus decisive for her to reach consensus with American allies and get legal support for any military actions.92

Evidence for the BPM is weak in the case of the other advisers in this group. As a “permanent representative,” Rice was part of the larger State Department bureaucracy and had used her first statement in the UN Security Council to endorse the principle of “the responsibility to protect.”93 In early March, she and her team at the UN began preparing a resolution that called for international action in Libya. Instead of bureaucratic interest, they viewed Libya rather as an opportunity to enact a new form of humanitarian intervention, one contemplated for nearly a decade. Moreover, if Power, Smith, and Weinstein were driven by bureaucratic logic, it seems unlikely they that would have taken a position entirely at odds with the head of NSC, Donilon. However, as the president’s speechwriter, Rhodes argued that the Libya case fit Obama’s criteria for humanitarian intervention.94 It suggests bureaucratic interests, showing an adviser caring particularly about a president being consistent with his own rhetoric.

Accordingly, the position of these advisers offers weak evidence for the BPM. From what published sources offer, it appears instead that personality and ideology played a crucial role. The preferences of Rice, Power, and Smith reflect a life-long personal sympathy for humanitarian intervention and memories of the ethnic cleansing in the Balkans and Rwanda.95 Lacking the more cautious traditions of the State and Defense departments and viewing the events in the Middle East as a sign of a new era, they strove to ensure that the president heard alternative options from those advanced by the Pentagon and military. Obama accordingly confronted conflicting views within his Administration between proponents of “realism,” urging him to stay out of Libya, and proponents of “humanitarian interventions,” wanting him to act.96

This situation provides scholars with important insights into Obama’s management style. He chaired the vast majority of the NSC meetings, essentially acting as his own national security adviser. During the first two weeks of March, Obama drove the discussion, asking probing questions, pressing both sides of the debate, but not announcing a decision. He kept his cards close to the chest—so much so that even those deeply engaged in the sessions found it hard to get an accurate impression of where he came down on an issue.97 Clinton’s decision to side with the intervention advocates strengthened their bargaining influence and placed additional political pressure on the president to use military force. Once a serious political rival of the president—she ran unsuccessfully against Obama for the presidential nomination of the Democratic Party in 2008—Clinton developed an obviously effective bargaining position within the Administration: she represented a large sector of the Democratic Party that Obama was unwilling to provoke.98 Consequently, Clinton’s membership in the intervention coalition may have pressured Obama to consider strongly a military alternative.

The link between the president and bureaucratic machinery is his senior advisers, and Obama relied heavily upon his own small informal network of close aides. Installing these aides primarily at the NSC, he often worked with and through them in formulating ideas and dealing with the foreign policy bureaucracies.99 Under Obama, the White House, not the State Department or other agencies, had become the power center for Administration’s foreign policy decision-making. Rice enjoyed an especially significant bargaining influence through closeness to the president. Her opinion was crucial to Obama as he made her ambassadorship a Cabinet-level post, meaning that she reported directly to him.100 In addition, the advocates within the NSC enjoyed bargaining influence through their nearness to the president. These advisers manouvered to their political advantage as Rice, Power, Rhodes, Smith, and Weinstein united in support of intervention. Rhodes, for example, worked closely with Obama on foreign policy issues, and the president talked with him before and after his meetings with his cabinet-level advisers like Clinton and Gates.101 Furthermore, during Obama’s election campaign in 2008, Power served as one of his closest foreign-policy advisers, and it is clear that she enjoyed a “special relationship” with him. Obama tended to make his final decisions with these aides, sent off sometimes to inform State or Defense officials what Obama wanted or decided. When Obama decided to take action against Qaddafi, he turned to Power’s humanitarian “toolbox” on how to prevent mass killings. When going to the UN Security Council to join the British and French in seeking international sanctions against Libya, he worked through Rice.102

Other actors’ closeness to the president was not powerful enough to overcome the bargaining influence enjoyed by these advocates. It is clear that Obama valued Gates and was reluctant to break with him.103 Gates and Mullen engaged media to out-manoeuvre intervention advocates and increase their influence. At different occasions during early March, they publicly disagreed with any military alternatives advanced for Libya. However, Gates experienced a pronounced decline in political influence as he was leaving office. Biden and Donilon, whilst close to the president, found themselves in weak political positions since the president decided to side with the advocates.

One main action-channel was present in the Libyan intervention case. By the end of February, Obama had begun a series of discussion in the Oval Office and White House Situation Room on how to handle the problem. This formal and NSC-led action-channel provided the primary forum for the president to gather and review information from advisers lobbying in favor of their policy preferences and, ultimately, for the president to issue his final decision about military intervention. Derived from this action-channel was a working group that Donilon established on 6 March in the NSC to begin planning for a post-Qaddafi government. This group gathered ideas from across the government and explored a host of possible outcomes.104 This action-channel, ending with two final meetings on 15 March, is critical to understanding the influence of bureaucratic politics on the Libya decision.

During the decision-making process, neither camp wielded enough power to prevail outright. A stalemate emerged when they were unable to agree on how to handle Libya. Here the BPM would predict that another bureaucratic actor would step in and swing the balance in favor of one or the other camp.105 Usually this task would fall on the president, and it did just that. Late on 15 March 2011, Obama met with members of his NSC in the Situation Room. Mullen laid out the plans for a no-fly zone. The president asked whether this no-fly zone would stop the possible bloodbath in Benghazi. “No sir,” said Mullen. “Then why are we focusing on a no-fly zone?” Obama responded. “I want more options.”106 The NSC meeting re-started at 9:00 pm, and this time the president received a range of military options. One was to use no American force at all, but simply provide intelligence and other support to the French and British. Another was the no-fly zone. The third was to go beyond the no-fly zone by sending planes to strike at Libyan ground targets. Going around the table, Gates again voiced his reservations. Clinton was out of the country but had made her views known in advance. Finally, the president chose the third military option.107

Gates and Mullen cautioned against going to war since an intervention involving the deployment of substantial numbers of personnel was effectively out of the question. Reduced budget cuts meant that fewer units could be deployed and for a shorter amount of time. Finally, Gates and Mullen lost the fight on non-intervention and, once it was clear that the president would go forward against their judgment, they called for a time-limited air-campaign operation.108 Obama did not indicate support for a military option until this last meeting. In his view, acting would be the right thing to do to prevent a massacre and because the Libyan people, their Arab neighbors, and the UN wanted it. He also added that failing to intervene would be a “psychological pendulum, in terms of the Arab Spring, in favor of repression … . Just signing on to a no-fly zone so that we have political cover isn’t going to cut it. That’s not how America leads.”

Mullen acknowledged later that imposing a no-fly zone and a limited air campaign were within the capabilities of the armed forces. He tacitly admitted that introducing ground forces or mounting a prolonged campaign in Libya would present significant challenges to the readiness and capabilities of American forces.109 Donilon also emphasized the limited approach of the operation when facing criticism for not including Congress.110 Rice and the NSC advisers argued that a no-fly zone would lead to unavoidable further military action and, therefore, be permitted in any UN resolution.111 Through her diplomatic efforts, Clinton shared this view about the UN; it was a key for mobilizing NATO member states and making the intervention come about.112 Finally, Ivo Daalder, Obama’s ambassador to NATO, who was originally skeptical about intervention, brought operations under NATO command.113 In part by his connexions to the White House, Daalder was able to make the argument for NATO at multiple levels within the United States government. Others agreed and, by 21 March, a consensus was forming in Washington.114 Yet, the decisions reached in this case do not reflect a compromise. Rather, they reflect a clear victory for the advocates of intervention and a defeat for their opponents.

The BPM offers mixed evidence in accounting for Libyan intervention. Two of the BPM’s three core propositions—the stand-sit and bargaining propositions—have validity; the third one—the resultant proposition—is dis-confirmed. The sit proposition holds that an actor’s bureaucratic interest is to realize the interests of his/her organisation. At first glance, their bureaucratic positions could infer the stance of the opponents to intervention and Clinton. There is little to suggest, however, that individuals like Rice, Power, and Smith would have changed their established views on Libya, whichever bureaucratic position they had taken. Thus, where one sat was partly influential on where one sat on the Libya question.

The bargaining proposition holds that the decision-making processes are characterized best as political bargaining processes. This proposition has validity with regard to Clinton, Rice, and the NSC advisers since closeness to the president in this case mattered. Finally, the resultant proposition contends that outcomes of the bargaining processes are unintended compromise solutions that no actor originally pursued. Yet, little evidence at hand reflects that this was a compromise as much as a win for the interventionists. However, these conclusions require some qualification, and it is possible to suggest several points about the utility of the BPM arising from this examination.115

One implication is that a crisis decision-making atmosphere tends to highlight the importance of personality and ideology. Each is of crucial significance for the debates around the BPM, and critics have argued that Allison exaggerated the importance of bureaucratic logic over other important questions springing from sources of this kind.116 Since the creation of the NSC in 1947, its primary function as an administrative or operational organisation has remained ambiguous. Some presidents, such as Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson, largely ignored it, whilst others like Nixon and Jimmy Carter permitted a situation to develop whereby this body became a key policy-shaping forum.117 On occasion, the latter approach gave considerable scope for the NSC to become a lead agency on particular issues depending on politics and personalities within the administration of the day.118 In terms of the Obama Administration, an NSC group with pre-existing ideological commitments to humanitarian intercession drove the policy leading towards the Libyan intervention.

This central problem within the BPM could be applied to the preferences of Gates and Clinton as well. As noted above, the BPM interprets Gates’ stand on the Libyan issue emanating from the lack of clear national interests and an over-stretched military. Other evidence, however, suggests that Gates’ general ideological beliefs had changed, so he also acted in accord with his own personal vision and “was running out of patience on [both] multiple fronts … and a willingness to play the game.”119 As Krasner puts it, decision-makers “often do not stand where they sit. Sometimes they are not sitting anywhere.120Moreover, Clinton’s departmental interests originated from the extent of diplomatic support for the operation. At the same time, other evidence implies that she gradually acted as an Obama “loyalist.”121 Obama`s personality and ideology played a role here as well, and it is easy to imagine other presidents handling the situation in slightly different ways. The looming humanitarian catastrophe in Benghazi seemed ultimately to have brought Obama into the Rice, Power, and Clinton camp. Obviously, it raises important questions about what the expected preferences of the secretaries of State or Defense should have been simply by virtue of holding those offices. To oppose or support the military option was not, in itself, proof of the applicability of the BPM approach. What remains critical is that the support or opposition of these advisers devolved to a degree from their personal views. The nexus between world-view and bureaucratic position still appears to be one of the most complex paths of foreign policy analysis.

A second implication flows from Kevin Marsh`s assertion about Obama’s direct and involved management style.122 In this case, Obama managed through his participation in and encouragement of the process that considered policy options. This course partly rejects the notion that the ability of bureaucracies to establish policies independently is a function of presidential inattention.123 That is, bureaucratic dominance of decision-making occurs when an issue is of moderate importance and does not attract the involvement of a president.

As illustrated by the central action-channel, Obama was the supreme player and highly involved in the decision-making process of this important national security issue. In this case, however, his involvement occurred simultaneously with bureaucratic influence from some of his senior advisers. It also highlights another important point made by critics of the BPM about the role of hierarchy in the American government: whether the president is merely another actor in the governmental bureaucracy or the one who “creates much of the bureaucratic environment which surrounds him.”124 The Libyan intervention lends some support to the latter view.


1. See UNSC Resolution (1973) S/RES/1973, adopted by the UNSC on 17 March 2011:http://www.un.org/press/en/2011/sc10200.doc.htm.

2. Christopher Chivvis, Toppling Qaddafi: Libya and the Limits of Liberal Intervention (NY: Cambridge University Press, 2014), 3.

3. James Mann, The Obamians: The Struggle Within the White House to Redefine American Power (New York, 2012), xiii.

4. “Letter from the President regarding the commencement of operations in Libya,” White House, Office of the Press Secretary(21 March 2011).

5. Yet, in contrast to the more limited role it would later play from 19 to 31 March, the United States was very much in the lead. See Jeffrey Michaels, “Able but not Willing: A Critical Assessment of NATO`s Libya Intervention,” in Kjell Engelbrekt, Marcus Mohlin, and Charlotte Wagnsson, eds., The NATO Intervention in Libya: Lessons Learned from the Campaign (London, NY, 2014), 22.

6. Ibid.

7. For example, Chivvis, Toppling Qaddafi; Engelbrekt et al., NATO Intervention; Kevin Marsh, “Leading from Behind”: Neoclassical Realism and Operation Odyssey Dawn,” Defense and Security Analysis, 30/2(2014), 120–32.

8. For example, see Graham Allison, Essence of Decision: Explaining the Cuban Missile Crisis (Boston, MA, 1971); Morton Halperin,Bureaucratic Politics and Foreign Policy (Washington, DC, 1974); Charles Hermann, Janice Gross Stein, Bengt Sundelius, and Stephen Walker, “Resolve, Accept, or Avoid: Effects of Group Conflict on Foreign Policy Decisions,” International Studies Review, 3/2 (2001), 133–68; Nelson Michaud, ”Bureaucratic Politics and the Shaping of Policies: Can We Measure Pulling and Hauling Games?,” Canadian Journal of Political Science, 35/2 (2002), 269–300; Steve Yetiv, Explaining Foreign Policy: U.S. Decision-making and the Persian Gulf War (Baltimore, MD, 2004); Kevin Marsh, “Obama’s Surge: A Bureaucratic Politics Analysis of the Decision to Order a Troop Surge in the Afghanistan War,” Foreign Policy Analysis, 10 (2014), 265–88.

9. Although Allison, “Decision-Explaining” also refers to the BPM as a “governmental politics model,” this paper adheres to the original term, which is also the one most commonly used in the literature.

10. Allison´s critics have made this point. For instance, Stephen Krasner, “Are Bureaucracies Important? (Or Allison Wonderland),” Foreign Policy, 7 (Summer 1972), 159–79; Jerel Rosati, “Ignoring the Essence of Decisionmaking,” International Studies Review, 31 (2001), 178–81.

11. Mann, Obamians, 286.

12. As an example, a group of Congressional Democrats issued a statement demanding that Obama withdraw from Libya. See Christopher Chivvis, “Libya and the Future of Liberal Intervention,” Survival, 54/6 (2012), 78.

13. For recent exceptions, see Kevin Marsh, “The Intersection of War and Politics: The Iraq War Troop Surge and Bureaucratic Politics,” Armed Forces and Society, 38/3(2012), 413–37; idem., “Obama’s Surge.”

14. Yetiv, Explaining Foreign Policy, 124.

15. For examples of case studies using this model, see Morton Halperin, “The Decision to Deploy the ABM: Bureaucratic and Domestic Politic in the Johnson Administration,” World Politics, 25/1 (1972), 62–95; Steve Smith, “Policy Preferences and Bureaucratic Positions: The Case of the American Hostage Rescue Mission,” International Affairs, 61/1 (1984), 9–25; Joanna Spear, “Governmental Politics and the Conventional Arms transfer Talks,” Review of International Studies, 19/4 (1993), 369–84; Lauren Holland, “The U.S. Decision to Launch Operation Desert Storm: A Bureaucratic Politics Analysis,” Armed Forces & Society, 25/2 (1999), 219–42; Qingmen Zhang, “The Bureaucratic Politics of U.S. Arm Sales to Taiwan,” Chinese Journal of International Politics, 1/2 (2006), 231–65.

16. Allison, Essence of Decision.

17. See Robert Art, “Bureaucratic Politics and American Foreign Policy: A Critique,” Policy Sciences, 4/4 (1973), 467–90.

18. See Krasner, “Are Bureaucracies Important?”; Jerel Rosati, “Developing a Systematic Decision-Making Framework: Bureaucratic Politics in Perspective,” World Politics, 33/2 (1981), 234–52.

19. Edward Rhodes, “Do Bureaucratic Politics Matter? Some Disconfirming Findings from the Case of the U.S. Navy,” World Politics, 47/1 (1994), 2.

20. The perceived symmetry between the second and third models encouraged Allison, together with Halperin, to propose a fusion of them: they called it the bureaucratic politics paradigm. See Graham Allison and Morton Halperin, “Bureaucratic Politics: A Paradigm and Some Policy Implications,” World Politics, 24: Supplement S1 (1972), 40–80.

21. In the second edition of Essence of Decision, Allison and Zelikow clarify that this does not indicate a deterministic relationship. It merely suggests that an actor´s position strongly affects his preferences; individual policy preferences have to be taken into account as well. See Graham Allison and Philip Zelikow, Essence of Decision: Explaining the Cuban Missile Crisis, second edition (NY, 1999), 307.

22. Ibid.; Christopher Jones, “Bureaucratic Politics and Organizational Process Models,” in Robert A. Denemark, ed., The International Studies Encyclopedia, Volume 1 (London, 2010), 151–68.

23. Allison and Zelikow, Essence of Decision, 300–302.

24. Allison, Essence of Decision, 171.

25. Allison and Zelikow, Essence of Decision, 255.

26. Ibid., 296–313; Rhodes, “Do Bureaucratic Politics Matter?,” 1.

27. A second way is to infer from the model a specific and narrowly defined behaviour that would confirm or disconfirm it, such as expectations that budgeting decisions in the United States Navy would reflect the model. See Rhodes, “Do Bureaucratic Politics Matter?.”

28. The assumptions presented here are based on the work of Allison, Essence of Decision; Allison and Zelikow, Essence of Decision; Rhodes, “Do Bureaucratic Politics Matter?; Marsh, “War and Politics; idem., “Obama’s Surge.”

29. Allison and Zelikow, Essence of Decision.

30. Ibid., 311.

31. OSD must ensure that the American armed forces are capable of fulfilling the missions asked of them by the president.

32. Morton Halperin and Priscilla Clapp, Bureaucratic Politics and Foreign Policy (Washington, DC, 2006), 35–37.

33. The State Department has suffered from decades of waning influence in foreign-policy-making as the NSC has largely supplanted its policy-making role. See Marsh, “War and Politics,” 418.

34. The JCS is tasked with ensuring that the armed forces are capable of carrying out the orders of the national command authority, as well as providing military advice to the president. See Marsh, “Obama’s Surge,” 6–7.

35. This largely holds, notwithstanding the fact that the CJCS and Secretary of Defence face different bureaucratic realities, risks, and interests within the Department of Defense.

36. Halperin and Clapp, Bureaucratic Politics.

37. Allison and Halperin, “Bureaucratic Politics.”

38. Another relevant institution is the United States Africa Command [AFRICOM] that manages the defence of American national security interests in 53 African countries—except Egypt.

39. The NSC may also serve as an “honest broker” ensuring that the views of the foreign policy principals are fairly and accurately considered and conveyed to the president. The national security advisor and individual NSC staffers may also advocate particular options if the president asks for their opinions. See Marsh, “War and Politics,” 417.

40. Eugene Wittkopf, Charles Kegley, and James Scott, eds., American Foreign Policy, Pattern and Process, 6th edition (Belmont, CA, 2003), 349–80.

41. Vice presidents have grown in importance and influence in foreign policy during the past two decades: Al Gore and Richard Cheney each formed their own personal national security and foreign policy staffs. See Halperin and Clapp,Bureaucratic Politics.

42. Allison, Essence of Decision, 171–73.

43. This question set is based on the assumptions above, the propositions established by Allison, Essence of Decision; Allison and Zelikow, Essence of Decision; Rhodes, “Do Bureaucratic Politics Matter?; Marsh, “War and Politics; idem., “Obama’s Surge.”

44. For discussion of American decision-making in this case, see Hillary Clinton, Hard Choices (London, 2014); Robert Gates,Duty: Memoirs of s Secretary at War (NY, 2014); Michael Hastings, “Inside Obama’s War Room,” Rolling Stone (13 October 2011); Michael Lewis, “Obama`s Way,” Vanity Fair (October 2012); Mann, Obamians, 281–301; David Sanger, Confront and Conceal: Obama`s Secret Wars and Surprising use of American Power (New York, 2012).

45. Sanger, Confront and Conceal.

46. “Hearings before a Subcommittee of the Committee on Appropriations House of Representatives,” Senate Armed Services Committee, 112th Congress (2 March 2011).

47. Ibid.

48. “DOD News Briefing with Secretary Gates and Adm. Mullen from the Pentagon,” Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense(Public Affairs) (1 March 2011); Gates, Duty, 512.

49. Yet, within 72 hours of Mullen receiving his orders, the military had halted Qaddafi’s advance with missiles fired from American submarines and destroyers.

50. Mann, Obamians, 286.

51. “Briefing by National Security Advisor Tom Donilon and Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes on Libya and the Middle East,” White House, Office of the Press Secretary (11 March 2011).

52. James Pfiffner, “Decision Making in the Obama White House,” Presidential Studies Quarterly, 41/2(2011), 244–62.

53. Hastings, “War Room.”

54. Lewis, “Obama`s Way.”

55. “Hearings before a Subcommittee of the Committee on Appropriations House of Representatives,” Senate Armed Services Committee, 112th Congress (10 March 2011).

56. Helene Cooper and Steven Lee Myers, “Obama Takes Hard Line with Libya after Shift by Clinton,” New York Times (18 March 2011).

57. Clinton, Hard Choices, 367.

58. Hillary Clinton, “Secretary of State Hillary Clinton: Opening Remarks on FY2012 Budget Given before Senate Foreign Relations Committee,” Senate Foreign Relations Committee (1 March 2011).

59. Clinton, Hard Choices, 367.

60. “This Week Transcript: Hillary Clinton, Robert Gates and Donald Rumsfeld” ABC News (27 March 2011):http://abcnews.go.com/ThisWeek/week-transcript-hillary-clinton-robert-gates-donald-rumsfeld/story?id=13232096.

61. Lizza Ryan, “The Consequentialist,” New Yorker (2 May 2011).

62. “Remarks by Ambassador Susan E. Rice, U.S. Permanent Representative to the United Nations, at the Security Council Stakeout on Libya” (16 March 2011): http://usun.state.gov/remarks/5300.

63. Hastings, “War Room.”

64. Mann, Obamians, 284–85.

65. As a speechwriter, Rhodes would have to write the speech explaining the decision; he said that he preferred to explain why the United States had prevented a massacre instead of why it had not. See Lewis, “Obama`s Way.”

66. Sanger, Confront and Conceal, 342.

67. In April 2011, Obama proposed cutting defence spending by around $500 billion over ten years.

68. Marsh, “Leading from Behind,” 127.

69. “Hearing to Receive on Operation Odyssey Dawn and the Situation in Libya,” Senate Armed Services Committee, 112th Congress (31 March 2011).

70. Gates, Duty, 511–12.

71. Sanger, Confront and Conceal, 339.

72. Gates, Duty, 512.

73. Ibid., 513.

74. “Mullen: Debt is Top National Security Threat,” CNN Wire Staff (27 August 2010).

75. “Hearing to Receive testimony on Operation Odyssey Dawn and the Situation in Libya,” Senate Armed Services Committee,112th Congress (31 March 2011).

76. Gates and Mullen, “DOD News Briefing.”

77. Halperin and Clapp, Bureaucratic Politics, 59 maintain that on the issue of military intervention, the armed services have been in general quite cautious. Professionally, preferring a conservative estimate of the readiness of forces, they are sensitive to the danger of using forces where they can be defeated.

78. Donilon, “Briefing.”

79. Mann, Obamians, 287.

80. Lewis, “Obama`s Way.”

81. Hastings, “War Room.”

82. Robert Jackson, “Obama’s Chief of Staff Downplays No-Fly Zone in Libya,” USA Today (11 March 2011).

83. For example, “Public Wary of Military Intervention in Libya. Broad Concern that U.S. Military is Overcommitted,” Pew Research Center (11 March 2011): http://www.people-press.org/2011/03/14/public-wary-of-military-intervention-in-libya/.

84. Michael Gordon and Mark Landler, “Backstage Glimpses of Clinton as Dogged Diplomat, Win or Lose,” New York Times (3 February 2013), A1.

85. Peter Baker, “Inside the Situation Room: How a War Plan Evolved,” New York Times (6 December 2009), A1; Bob Woodward,Obama´s Wars (NY, 2010), 254.

86. Hastings, “War Room.”

87. Halperin and Clapp, Bureaucratic Politics, 104.

88. Clinton, Hard Choices, 370.

89. Interview with Rhodes, quoted in Mann, Obamians, 290.

90. Clinton, Hard Choices, 368.

91. Ibid., 373.

92. Ibid., 364, 367; Chivvis, Toppling Qaddafi, 55. Clinton argued that without international authorisation, the United States would step into a situation whose consequences are unforeseeable.

93. “Remarks by Ambassador Susan E. Rice, U.S. Permanent Representative, on the UN Security Council and the Responsibility to Protect, at the International Peace Institute Vienna Seminar, New York (15 June 2009):http://usun.state.gov/briefing/statements/ 2009/125977.htm.

94. Sanger, Confront and Conceal, 342.

95. Ibid., 339; Hastings, “War Room.”

96. Mann, Obamians, 266–89.

97. Ibid., xii

98. Woodward, Obama´s Wars, 254.

99. Mann, Obamians, xviii.

100. Hastings, “War Room.”

101. Ibid.

102. Mann, Obamians, 143, 286.

103. Woodward, Obama´s Wars, 136.

104. Hastings, “War Room.”

105. Klaus Brummer, “The Bureaucratic Politics of Security Institution Reform,” German Politics, 18/4 (2009), 501–18.

106. Sanger, Confront and Conceal, 343.

107. Mann, Obamians, xiii.

108. Sanger, Confront and Conceal, 346.

109. Mullen, “Hearing to Receive testimony.”

110. Mann, Obamians, 294.

111. Nigel Morris and David Usborne, “Cameron frustrated with Obama’s refusal to act,” Independent (17 March 2011).

112. Joby Warrick, “Hillary´s war: Clinton credited with key role in success of NATO airstrikes, Libyan rebels,” Washington Post(31 October 2011).

113. This role is a unique position that derives from the ambassador´s role as a representative of both the secretaries of Defense and State.

114. Chivvis, Toppling Qaddafi, 74–75.

115. Another is the incomplete nature of the decision-making record. A full accounting of this is beyond the scope of this analysis; it should await the full release of the government´s record.

116. Barton Bernstein, “Understanding Decision-Making, US Foreign Policy, and the Cuban Missile Crisis,” International Security, 25/1 (2000), 134–64; Krasner, “Are Bureaucracies Important?”; Martin Smith, “US Bureaucratic Politics and the Decision to Invade Iraq,” Contemporary Politics, 14/1 (2008), 91–105.

117. Smith, “US Bureaucratic Politics,” 96.

118. Ibid.

119. Gates, Duty, 512–13.

120. Krasner, “Are Bureaucracies Important?,” 165.

121. Jonathan Allen and Amie Parnes, HRC: State Secrets and the Rebirth of Hillary Clinton (NY, 2014).

122. See Marsh, “Obama’s Surge.”

123. Rosati, “Systematic Decision-Making.”

124. Krasner, “Are Bureaucracies Important?


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