Shared from the 8/26/2016 Philadelphia Inquirer - Philly Edition eEdition


When war leaders blunder


Donald Trump speaks at a rally in Dimondale, Mich., on Friday.

GERALD HERBERT / Associated Press

His detractors say that Donald Trump lacks the temperament to be commander in chief, and thus president of the United States. For instance, 50 national-security experts from his own party recently stated they would not vote for him, opining in an open letter that he “is unable or unwilling to separate truth from falsehood. He does not encourage conflicting views. He lacks self-control and acts impetuously. He cannot tolerate personal criticism.”

While we will not take a position on the accusations in the open letter, our recent RAND Corporation book,

Blinders, Blunders and Wars, does shed light on the consequences of a leader’s temperament and its possible impact on a nation’s security. The book analyzes eight historical cases of leaders’ decisions that proved disastrously wrong: Napoleon’s invasion of Russia; Hitler’s invasion of the Soviet Union; Kaiser Wilhelm II’s order to sink U.S. civilian ships during World War I; the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor; the Chinese invasion of Vietnam; the Kremlin’s decision to invade Afghanistan; the seizure of the Falkland Islands by Argentina’s junta; and George W. Bush’s decision to invade Iraq. These decisions generally flow from excessive hubris and result in massive bloodshed and strategic failure.

The leaders who made these fateful choices exhibited many of the following traits:

>Rigid and flawed strategic concept or vision

>Failure to contemplate contingencies or unintended consequences

>Unwarranted claims of assured success

>Underestimation of the adversary's capability and will

>Underestimation of difficulties in implementation

>Filtering information and advice to fit prior beliefs

>Excessive reliance on intuition — thus, personal experience — rather than analysis

>Mental imbalance or megalomania

In most of these eight cases, decision-makers formed and clung to a defective but self-affirming “cognitive model” of how the world works, discounting information and objective analysis that contradicted their model in favor of input that validated it. Surrounded by advisers who reinforced rather than challenged their beliefs, these leaders’ thinking and claims often became untethered from reality.

It is a common feature of human choice-making that the preference for validation over contradiction can lead to bad decisions. Equally dangerous is the propensity to overestimate one’s ability to control the consequences of a decision, resulting from prior successes. When circumstances demand that a president make decisions involving war and peace, these deficiencies have led — and can lead — to catastrophe.

Our analysis offers a lens through which the temperament of Trump and other candidates to be commander in chief can be viewed.

Do they seem to underestimate other countries? Do they fail to consider the possibility of unintended consequences or contingencies? Do they underestimate the difficulties in implementing a seemingly “simple solution” to what is actually a much more complex problem? Do they fail to utilize analysis, relying instead solely upon intuition?

Are they unwilling to consider new information that might correct an initially flawed assessment of a situation? Do they demonstrate excessive hubris and unwarranted confidence in their own ability to solve any problem and control events? Do they cling to their flawed positions in the face of facts that contradict them?

In a nutshell, does the candidate seem to fit the pattern of thinking that history shows results in catastrophic decisions on matters of war and peace?

Readers can make up their own minds.

The authors

(; have both served in senior national security positions in Democratic and Republican administrations.

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