Obama, Syria And The Groupthink Trap

President Barack Obama answers questions at a press conference at Konstantinovsky Palace during the G20 Summit in Saint Petersburg, Russia, Sept. 6, 2013. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

President Barack Obama answers questions at a press conference at Konstantinovsky Palace during the G20 Summit in Saint Petersburg, Russia, Sept. 6, 2013. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

In 2008, when U.S. President Barack Obama announced his national security team for his first term in office, he explicitly went on record as saying that he wanted to appoint a team that would avoid groupthink.

“One of the dangers in a White House, based on my reading of history, is that you get wrapped up in groupthink, and everybody agrees with everything, and there’s no discussion and there are not dissenting views,” Obama said.

“So I’m going to be welcoming a vigorous debate inside the White House,” he continued. “But I understand, I will be setting policy as president. I will be responsible for the vision that this team carries out, and I expect them to implement that vision, once decisions are made. So as Harry Truman said, the buck will stop with me.”

Groupthink is a term coined by social psychologist Irving Janis in 1971. It refers to the tendency of decision-making groups to suppress dissent in the interests of group harmony.

To develop his theory, Janis analyzed the decision-making procedures that led to several fiascos: Pearl Harbor (1941), the Bay of Pigs Invasion (1961), and the Vietnam War (1964 till 1967).

Janis believed that the soil from which groupthink sprouts includes:

  • An amiable, cohesive group
  • Relative isolation of the group from dissenting viewpoints
  • A directive leader who signals what decision he or she favors

I learned about the concept of groupthink during the Social Psychology course I’m taking on Coursera.

So is Obama falling into the trap of groupthink on Syria today?

Dr. Fathali M. Moghaddam, a professor in the Department of Psychology and the director of the Conflict Resolution Program at Georgetown University, seems to think so. In an articled called Groupthink, Syria and President Obama, he discusses how Obama and his smart advisers came to the situation they’re in regarding Syria.

“The Achilles Heel of politicians, even the smartest ones,” he wrote, “is that they do not take the steps that are necessary to overcome groupthink – such as including critical outside voices in their discussions, especially the ones leading to historic decisions.”

If you look at Obama’s team of prominent players in his second term, you get a better idea of how the group functions. In an Op-Ed published in February 2013 in the Washington Post, American journalist and novelist David Ignatius argued that “by assembling a team where all the top players are going in the same direction, he [Obama] is perilously close to groupthink.”

The team Ignatius is talking about includes (quoted descriptions are Ignatius’s from the same Op-Ed):

  • Secretary of State John Kerry, “a loyal and discreet emissary for Obama”
  • Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, “a feisty combat veteran with a sometimes sharp temper”
  • CIA Director John Brennan, who “made a reputation throughout his career as a loyal deputy”
  • National security adviser Tom Donilon, “who runs what his fans and critics agree is a ‘tight process’ at the National Security Council (NSC)
  • Chief of Staff Dennis McDonough, “who is close to Obama in age and temperament”

In another opinion piece called The Danger of Groupthink and published in The National Interest, Paul R. Pillar, a nonresident senior fellow at the Center for 21st Century Security and Intelligence, provides a more detailed analysis of Ignatius’s arguments and the concept of groupthink.

“The key factor is not so much the substantive views that senior appointees bring with them into office,” Pillar wrote. “As the cliché goes, a president is entitled to have working for him people who agree with his policies. The issue is instead one of how loyalty—not only to the president, but collective loyalty as part of the president’s inner circle—may affect how senior officials express or push views once they are in office.”

So far, Obama’s plan for a “limited” military strike against Syria, in response to the regime’s suspected use of chemical weapons, has garnered little global support. And it’s still not clear how the Congress will vote on Syria, although the momentum is moving towards a “no.” According to a recent Gallup poll, 51% of Americans oppose the U.S. taking military action “to reduce Syria’s ability to use chemical weapons.” These voices and situations may sway Obama one way or the other. At the G20 summit, the U.S. President refused to say whether he might act on his own. He will be making a speech on Tuesday.

“Whoever is in the White House needs to do more to overcome groupthink,” Dr. Moghaddam said in his article, “not just by being intelligent enough to read and discuss the research, but by being street-smart enough to take the practical steps needed to avoid lose-lose situations – like our current situation vis-à-vis Syria.”

To prevent groupthink, Janis recommended the following measures:

  • Be impartial – do not endorse any position.
  • Encourage critical evaluation, assign a “devil’s advocate.” Or even welcome the input of a genuine dissenter, as Charlan Nemeth and her colleagues reported in 2001.
  • Occasionally subdivide the group, then reunite to air differences.
  • Welcome critiques from outside experts and associates.
  • Before implementing, call a “second-chance” meeting to air any lingering doubts.


Note: For some of the most insightful and critical analyses of the Obama Administration’s urgency to bomb Syria at the moment, read the following articles:

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1 Response

  1. December 15, 2013

    […] Learn how to identify and take steps to overcoming groupthink. Obama, Syria And The Groupthink Trap | Racing Thoughts […]

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