Janis applied his theory to a number of foreign policy decisions that were widely regarded as policy failures. The study, which was first published in 1972, was entitled ‘Victims of Groupthink: A Psychological Study of Foreign Policy Decisions and fiascos’. According to Janis, if Groupthink is prevalent within a particular group making a policy decision, it leads to: 1) a distorted view of reality, 2) excessive optimism producing hasty and reckless policies, 3) neglect of ethnical issues. Janis’s work played a key role in shaping our understanding of decision making processes within a group, particularly from an International Relations perspective (‘t Hart, 1991, p247).
Following accusations that Janis’s definition of Groupthink was confusing due to the fact it seemed to combine processes, causes and effects, he sought to expand on his explanation of the theory, providing a formulation of the connections between Groupthink’s causes, indicators and effects. According to Janis, certain structural faults proceeded the symptoms (effects), these consisted of: 1) Illusion of the Group, 2) Lack of tradition of impartial leadership, 3) lack of norms in requiring methodical procedure, 4) homogeneity of members social backgrounds and ideology. Janis also identified a number of ‘provocative situational contexts’ which would lead to Groupthink. These included: 1) high stress from external threats with low hope of a better solution than the leaders, 2) low self esteem temporarily induced by: 2.1) recent failures that make members inadequacies salient, 2.2) excessive difficulties on current decision making tasks that lower each members sense of self-efficiency, 2.3) Moral dilemmas: apparent lack of feasible alternatives (except ones that violate ethical standards). In addition to a number of situational factors that generally proceed the effects of Groupthink, Janis also identified seven more symptoms of ‘defective decision making’. These included: 1) gross omissions in survey of objections, 2) gross omissions on survey of alternatives, 3) poor information search, 4) selective bias in processing information at hand, 5) failure to re-consider originally rejected alternatives, 6) failure to examine some major costs and risks of preferred choice, 7) failure to work out detailed implementation, monitoring and contingency plans (‘t Hart, 1991, p256, p257)
The Bush administration was under growing pressure to justify it’s decision to go to war with Iraq. In 2004, a US Senate Intelligence Committee report claimed the decision had been made on the basis of ‘false and overstated’ intelligence. The Chairman of the bi-partisan committee, Pat Roberts, stated that CIA claims that Iraq was in possession of chemical and biological weapons and could produce nuclear weapons by the end of the century were false. Committee Vice-Chairman, Jay Rockefell claimed that the Bush administration had repeatedly overstated the treat posed by Iraq (Guardian, 2004)
A number of studies post the 2003 invasion of Iraq have explored this question. The idea that Groupthink was present in the US Government’s decision to go to war was even seemingly accepted by the US Senate Intelligence Committee, which described the the intelligence gathering process as one of “collective groupthink”. The belief that the failures of the Iraq invasion can be attributed to Groupthink was also highlighted in the Butler report. More specifically, the Treasury Secretary, Paul O’Neil allegedly accused a number of individuals, including Vice President Dick Cheney, as acting as “praetorian guards” (Barr, 2015, p31,32). This would align with Janis’s idea of self appointed mind guards. Additionally, US General Paul Eaton claimed that US Secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld had fostered a culture of Groupthink at the Pentagon, which led to experienced members of the military and civilians feeling unable to challenge senior members of the Pentagon’s leadership (Barr, 2015, P32). This particular issue was highlighted by the case of US Army Chief of Staff, Eric Shinseki who lost his job after telling a Senate Committee that post-war operations in Iraq would require “several hundred thousand” soldiers, contrary to claims made by the Pentagon at the time (Barr, 2015, p32). Similarly, President Bush himself also seemed to behave like a mind guard, marginalizing those who questioned the invasion. More generally, those who raised objections to the invasion were regarded as “not being on the team” and were often denied access to the President (Houghton, 2008, p185). Additional literature also explores Janis’s idea of a collective belief in the ‘inherent morality of the group’, one of the key symptoms of Groupthink. In the context of the decision to invade Iraq it seems that the Bush Administration did maintain a collective belief in the group’s moral superiority, compared to that of the Hussein regime. Even ‘realists’ within the Bush administration were denounced as “appeasers” (Lobe, 2004, p2). As Iraq descended into Chaos post invasion, there’s also significant evidence that the Bush Administration failed to prepare sufficient contingency plans to deal with issues like insurgency and looting (Lobe, 2004, p3). It’s argued that the backgrounds and ideologies of a number of key decision makers also played a role in the decision, in particular Vice President Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld were close allies and hard line neo-conservatives. In turn both these men surrounded themselves with aides and advisors who shared their mutual ideology (Lobe, 2004, p2). There’s evidence that President Bush himself also fell victim to Groupthink, largely through the role of one of his closest advisor’s, Karl Rove who is accused of having controlled the level of information that reached the President (Maxey, 2015, p66) Perhaps of the most important examples of the role of Groupthink can be found in the inelegance gathering process and the Pentagon’s failure to properly consider independent analysis in the lead up to the invasion. In the months before the war the Pentagon bypassed more independent inelegance agencies like the CIA, instead relying on it’s own internal inelegance agency (Maxey, 2015, p68).
In order to better understand this particular case study in the context of of the theory of Groupthink, I have differentiated between the causes and symptoms of Groupthink in the decision making process prior to the 2003 invasion of Iraq. I believe decision to invade Iraq displayed several of of the causes of Groupthink, as identified by Janis. Specifically, senior members of the Bush Administration consistently displayed a lack of impartial leadership, with a decision to invade Iraq seemingly made even before all relevant intelligence had been assessed. This in turn represents a major shift away from normative procedures, reflected in a fundamentally flawed intelligence gathering process and a lack of time dedicated to adequate contingency planning. Another key cause may have been the backgrounds of many of the key decision markers, with a majority of the Administration’s senior leadership, particularly Cheney and Rumsfeld, guided by the same Neo-Conservative ideology, which favors the promotion of US values around the globe and believes threats to the US should be preempted through military action (Global Research, 2015). Turning to the symptoms and effects of Groupthink, the Administration’s senior leadership displayed a belief that the decision to invade Iraq was a moral one, describing “evil men” who, along with their “terrorist allies”, were intent on using chemical weapons against the West (Guardian, 2003). Many of the key decision makers also seemed to be guilty of justifying their own policy through collective rationalizations, resulting in selective bias and a failure to effectively scrutinize all available intelligence. Self-censorship can also be observed in the decision making process, with vital information prevented from reaching President Bush by key aids who seem to fear it would not suit the Administration’s agenda and lead to the President questioning information he had previously been presented with. One of the symptoms of Grpupthink most prevalent in the case study was the pressure put upon decenters and those who seemed to question and scrutinize the decision to invade Iraq. This particular issue was highlighted in the case of Eric Shineki, who lost his job after making contrary claims regarding the number of troops required post-invasion. Those within the Administration’s senior leadership who questioned the decision were also denied access to the President and were accused of not being “on the team”. The role of self-appointed mind-guards also seemed to play a role in the Administration’s decision making process. This particular symptom is highlighted in accusations made towards a number of senior decision makers, including Cheney, who were described as “praetorian guards”, shielding the administration from any evidence which was at odds with their own personal agenda.