Rational Choice


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   The Rational Choice Theory provides a methodology for assessing decision-making by using empirical evidence to understand revision and choice, and thus rationalize the inferences and conclusions made.  The methodology consists of systematic evaluation of options through an analysis of the various consequences of the judgments made such as validity, rationality, value assessment and risk aversion.  The method used below resembles the model presented by Janice Gross Stein and Raymond Tanter in Rational Decisionmaking: Israel's Security Choices, 1967. 1  

    In order to help map out a given puzzle, a diagram can be a helpful tool for outlining the decision-making process and consequently, allow the opportunity to assign numerical distributions to their respective judgments. As opposed to the prospect theory, which seeks to minimize subjective uncertainties, the rational choice theory provides a normative framework that deals with perceptions.  Thus, value conflicts are given a higher priority in the analysis of decision-making.  For more information regarding rational choice theory, please see Rational Decisionmaking.


     Why did the British and United States' policy of containment suddenly change post-9/11?  What was the rationality behind this change in value assessment?  What options did the Bush and Blair Administrations consider in making  the final decision of regime overthrow?

Model Specification and Design

        It is important to evaluate the process of rational decisionmaking in order to better understand the product of the Bush Administration's decision, which in this case is the decision to overthrow the Iraqi regime.  However, in doing so, it is essential to keep in mind that the Bush Administration's decision was made within the confines of prevailing beliefs and opinions, public pressure, and limited intelligence.  This study is further limited due to the inaccessibility of classified information that had been available to both the Administration and the Central Intelligence Agency.  Thus, I am forced to evaluate the process based solely on one-sided, politically motivated statements and published documents on behalf of both the Bush and Blair Administrations as well as the United Nations.  This study is also based on the assumptions that 1) the Administration's final decision of regime overthrow is the result of rational decisionmaking, and 2) statements given and documents written concerning the subject matter of inquiry are accurate.

           Based on prevailing beliefs and opinions that Iraq had in fact acquired biological and chemical weapons, the Bush and Blair Administrations did not question the idea nor the necessity of disarmament as a solution to the "Iraq Problem."  Rather the question-at-hand concerned the method of disarmament. 

 "According to the British government, the Iraqi regime could launch a biological or chemical attack in as little as 45 minutes after the order were given."

           ~ President George W. Bush, Rose Garden, September 26, 2003
              (Although this information has not been verified by the CIA)

"The President has made repeatedly clear to the American people, as he said in his address to the nation the other night, that the purpose of this is the disarmament of the Iraqi regime... there is no question that we have evidence and information that Iraq has weapons of mass destruction, biological and chemical particularly. This was the reason that the President felt so strongly that we needed to take military action to disarm Saddam Hussein, since he would not do it himself."

            ~ Press Secretary Ari Fliescher, Press Briefing March 21, 2003 
               Click here for Full Text

"There can be no stable, steady state for Iraq unless it is properly disarmed, and nor can there be stability for the region and the international community."

              ~ House of Commons Library, 13 March 2003, Iraq: developments since
                 UN Security Council  Resolution 1441, Research Paper 03/22   Click
                 Here for Full Text

"What we know for certain, however, is that Saddam Hussein will be disarmed.  The only question that remains for us is how."

              ~ House of Commons Library, 13 March 2003, Iraq: developments since
                 UN Security Council  Resolution 1441, Research Paper 03/22   Click
                 Here for Full Text

        Furthermore, according to the CIA in February 2003, the probability of a terrorist organization using chemical, biological, radiological, or nuclear weapons and long range missiles against the United States has increased significantly in the past decade.  As a result, the Bush Administration, as explicated by President George W. Bush on June 1, 2002, adopted a new strategy that would thus confront the enemy, disrupt its plans, and confront the threats before they have a chance to emerge.  The Central Intelligence Agency identified the strategy and intent of the Administration:  "The United States will assume a clear and pragmatic approach in prosecuting the campaign against terrorism.  This will include incentives for ending state sponsorship.  When a state chooses not to respond to such incentives, tough decisions will be confronted.  At all times within this new dynamic we will balance a nation's near-term actions against the long-term implications and consequences.  The United States currently lists seven state sponsors of terrorism: Iran, Iraq, Syria, Libya, Cuba, North Korea, and Sudan." 4  

    The Bush and Blair Administrations were faced with several options.  A careful examination of the costs, benefits, and likelihood of the consequences of each of the options facing the Bush and Blair Administrations should help clarify the rationality of the final decision made.

Decision Analysis

    The purpose of decision analysis is to attempt to decompose the "logical glue" that pastes together choice and its consequences. A distinctive feature of decision analysis is its ability to handle subjective uncertainties.1

    During the late 1990s, three potential methods of disarmament of the Iraqi regime were under heated debate:  reconciliation, containment, and military confrontation.  Attached to these three main options was the possibility of one or more of the following three corresponding scenarios:  compliance, defiance, and neither compliance nor defiance. 

    Reconciliation is a policy that involves rewarding the adversary in hopes of achieving compliance in the form of adherence or conformity depending on whether the rewards are given before or after the fact.  Reconciliation with Iraq would most probably involve Washington taking the lead in working for the removal of the multinational economic sanctions, the removal of international inspections, and the incorporation of Iraq both politically and economically.  Containment assumes Baghdad would accede to demands only when faced by economic sanctions that are accompanied by "credible threats of overwhelming force."  This policy would include the continuation of the multinational economic sanctions along with the diplomatic isolation of Iraq.  As a result, Iraq would be placed in the position where it will most probably be forced to comply to US demands.  And finally, assuming Iraq is in a state where it will coerce to neither reward nor punishment, a third and final viable option is available which constitutes military confrontation and possible regime overthrow.2  

    A diagram below is shown in the form of a decision tree in order to help illustrate the three options described above that faced the Bush Administration:  immediate actions, uncertain events, and assumed corresponding scenarios of each event.



Option #1:  Reconciliation


Positive Reinforcements
Compliance (Disarmament)/ Defiance Compliance (Disarmament)


Option #2:   Containment and Overthrow


With Inspection
Without Inspection
Compliance (Disarmament)/ Defiance Compliance (Disarmament)/ Defiance


Option #3:  Military Confrontation/ Forcible Disarmament


Support guerilla war, encourage Iraqi opposition forces,
initiate a palace coup, or any other viable option
Successful Regime Overthrow
Maintain Regime
Failure to Disarm



    As the diagram illustrates above, the first option of reconciliation offers two uncertain events.  In the event where Washington applies positive reinforcement, the theory would expect either adherence and eventually compliance, which in this case is disarmament, on behalf of the Iraqi government or the opposite: defiance, refusal to disarm.  On the other hand, Washington may decide to reward the Iraqi government if and only if the situation holds true that the Iraqi government has conformed and fully complied to Washington's demands. 2

    Background to the policy of Reconciliation in Iraq:  Reconciliation has been the approach that dominated United States foreign policy until Iraq invaded Kuwait in August 1990.  The policy followed the principle of "working with the other side" in hopes of bringing Iraq back into the family of nations through diplomacy and economic aid.  The policy was guided by the assumptions that 1) Baghdad needed time to rebuild after the Persian Gulf War and thus was not interested in invading Kuwait, rather it would focus on diplomatic coercion and subversion as levers of power, and 2) it was believed that Saddam Hussein's behavior could be easily moderated through diplomacy and by the encouragement of American companies to take part in rebuilding Iraq. 5 

    The second option of containment and overthrow offers two uncertain events, each with the possibility of one of two corresponding scenarios:  compliance and defiance on behalf of the Iraqi regime.  In the event where containment would be conducted with continued inspections, there is a risk taken in that room has been given to the Iraqi regime to either meet the terms of the containment and allow the inspections to take place or act against the terms and delay the inspections.  On the other hand, if the United States decides to apply the policy of containment without inspections, the opportunity could allow the Iraqi regime to create nuclear, biological, and/or chemical weapons.2

    Background to the policy of Containment and Overthrow in Iraq:  During the Clinton Administration, containment plus regime change was the prevailing option in Washington due to the fact that military confrontation in the form of either supporting guerrilla attacks by opposition forces, helping renegades come to power, and/or employing Western airpower to assist the dissidents in a direct challenge to the regime was considered too risky for the United States.  As a result, President Clinton adopted a policy of containment with overthrow as a long-term goal.  During the containment process, the extensive weapons monitoring and dismantlement efforts of the United Nations Special Commission (UNSCOM) greatly diminished Iraq's capacity to develop and use weapons of mass destruction.  However, given that the weapons monitoring and dismantlement efforts came to a halt in 1998, UN officials have been unable to determine the current status of Iraq's weapons programs.  Despite this fact, according to reports by UNSCOM and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the UN weapons inspections effectively neutralized much of Iraq's ability to develop and use weapons of mass destruction.  The IAEA also stated in 1998 that "there is no indication that Iraq possesses nuclear weapons or any meaningful amounts of weapon-useable nuclear material." 6

    And finally, the third option of forcible disarmament and military confrontation of the Iraqi regime poses three uncertain scenarios.  In the event where disarmament is in fact successful, the eventual overthrow of the regime may be likely, however not certain.  On the other hand, the United States may in fact fail to disarm the regime.

    Background to the policy of Military Confrontation and Forcible Disarmament in Iraq:  Iraq has been subjected to United Nations Sanctions since the invasion of Kuwait in 1990.  The sanctions ban all exports with the exception of oil sales under the Security Council Resolution's (986) "oil for food" program and allows imports of food and medicine.  Furthermore, Iraq is obliged to "(a) accept the destruction, removal, or rendering harmless of all its - nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons, and ballistic missiles with a range over 150 kilometres; and - research, development, and manufacturing facilities associated with the above; and (b) undertake not to develop such weapons in the future. The United Nations Special Commission (UNSCOM) oversees these processes. Iraq must give full cooperation, in particular immediate, unrestricted access to any site UNSCOM needs to inspect." 7

   Iraq has been severely damaged to economic sanctions and continues bombardments.  The table below illustrates Iraqi Crude Oil Production previous to and subsequent to the UN Sanctions.


However, the Bush Administration argues that due to the fact that Iraq has consistently denied to allow UNSCOM inspectors the access they need to locate WMD capabilities and has refused all calls to resume compliance, the option of military confrontation and forcible disarmament remains.

Multiattribute Utility Measurement

    Multiattribute Utility Measurement is a method that can be used to value tradeoffs by assigning relative rank orders to pairs of outcomes within a dimension of preference.  By obtaining relative comparisons of outcomes, one is able to convert rank orders into quantitative magnitudes of utility.  It is important to note that the resulting estimates are only tentative and necessitate validity.

    A problem arises in giving the above mentioned freedom to the rational decision-maker.  On the one hand, decision analysts allow this freedom to the decision-maker based on the fact that individuals are assumed to be responsible and thus are capable of assigning complex and reasonable tradeoff values to corresponding outcomes.  On the other hand, analysts also acknowledge that individuals need a decision-aid in order to facilitate a rational choice process.  Unaided intuitive judgment is subject to the lack of adherence to normative principles of rational choice.1 One such decision-aid that is commonly used by the CIA is referred to as the Sherman-Kent Scale.

    Sherman-Kent Scale

    The CIA in the early 1960s developed the Sherman Kent Scale in order to help convert rhetoric into numerical values. This scale allows an analyst to assign empirical data to help rationalize the process of decision-making through the study of probabilities. The chart below represents probabilities of the likelihood of various decisions.  For more information, please see Sherman Kent Scale.

100% Certainty

93% give or take about 6%

Almost certain 
Highly probable, highly likely, overwhelming odds 

75% give or take about 12%


50% give or take about 10%

Chances about even
Chances a little better [or less] than even

30% give or take about 10%

Probably not
Unlikely, doubtful  

7% give or take about 5%

Almost certainly not
Virtually impossible, highly doubtful 



__ As defined by the Central Intelligence Agency
__ Additions based on judgment




   Concerning our present inquiry, the relative probabilities and tradeoffs of the various outcomes of the United States' risk-taking needs to be evaluated.  In order to properly assign values to their respective outcomes, statements made by the decision-makers addressing the probability of the success of each of three options are listed below for subsequent analysis.


    Option #1:  Reconciliation

Assessment and Conclusion:  Probability of Reconciliation

   Reconciliation was the dominant policy before the first Gulf War.  Subsequently, this policy had not been given much attention, if any.  Furthermore, since the United States' declaration of war on terror, reconciliation became an in-option.  Thus, it is fair to assume the Administration did not feel reconciliation would be effective in disarming the regime given its previous demonstration as a failure of a policy at the time of the Gulf War.  Thus, the probability of reconciliation as an effective option for disarmament is 0.0.

    Option #2:  Containment and Overthrow

Statement #1:

"Containment is not possible when unbalanced dictators with weapons of mass destruction can deliver those weapons on missiles or secretly provide them to terrorist allies."

             ~ President Bush, Commencement Address at the United States Military Academy in West
                Point, New York, June 1, 2002   Click Here for Full Text

    Likelihood of containment as an effective option for disarmament as per Sherman-Kent Scale:  7% give or take 5%.  This probability was derived by equating the term "not possible" with the Sherman-Kent Scale's "virtually impossible."  Thus, the probability 0.07 will be used.

Statement #2:

"Iraq's announcement this morning to expel the Americans from the inspection team is clearly unacceptable and a challenge to the international community.  Let me remind you all again -- I will say this every time I discuss this issue -- these inspectors in the last six years have uncovered more weapons of mass destruction potential than was -- and destroyed it -- than was destroyed in the entire Gulf War.  It is important for the safety of the world that they continue their work.  I intend to pursue this matter in a very determined way."

            ~ Former President Bill Clinton in response to the U.N. Security Council's decision to punish
               Iraq for refusing to comply with arms inspections, November 13, 1997.  Click here for Full Text

    Likelihood of containment with continued inspections as an effective option for disarmament as per Sherman-Kent Scale pre-Bush Administration:  93% give or take about 6%.  This probability was derived using the phrase "intend to pursue this in a very determined way."  This phrase most closely indicates a scenario that would correspond to that which is highly probable and at overwhelming odds.  However, due to the fact that "intent to pursue" is a higher probability than "highly probable", the probability of 0.96 will be used.


Assessment and Conclusion:  Probability of Containment

     Containment:  As noted above, the probability of containment as an effective policy for disarmament is as low as 2%.  Thus, the probability of 0.07 will be used.

     With Inspections:  As noted above, the probability of containment with inspections as an effective option for disarmament as illustrated in Statement #2 is as high as 96%.  Based on this assessment, the probability of 0.96 will be used.

     Without Inspections:  Despite extensive research concerning the option of containment without continued inspections, I have been unable to locate any statements and/or documents addressing this issue.  It seems as though neither the Bush/Blair Administrations, United Nations, nor members of the international community have looked into this option.  However, this probability would be equivalent to the probability of containment with inspections from 1.0.  Thus, the probability of 0.04 will be used.

    Option #3:  Military Confrontation/ Forcible Disarmament

Statement #1:

"So I call upon the world to come together and insist that this dangerous man disarm. But should they choose not to continue to pressure Saddam, and should he continue to defy the world, for the sake of our peace, for the sake of the security, this country will lead a coalition of other willing nations and we will disarm Saddam Hussein. If need be, if war is brought upon us like I said last night, I want to assure you, particularly those who wear the uniform and those who have a loved one in the military, we will commit the full force and might of the United States military. And for the name of peace, we will prevail."

               ~ President George W. Bush, Grand Rapids, Michigan, January 29, 2003.  Click Here for Full

   Likelihood of military confrontation, or forcible disarmament, as an effective tool for disarmament as per Sherman-Kent Scale: 93% give or take about 6%.  The probability was derived by using the phrase "we will prevail" and equating it with the Sherman-Kent Scale's "overwhelming odds."  Thus, the probability of 0.93 will be used.

Statement #2:

"It is recognised
[sic] that forcible disarmament of Iraq might lead to the ending of the current regime.  The UK and the USA regard this in positive terms, and each has a long-standing policy aim of regime change in Iraq, but they have not made it a prime objective of their present moves.  Nevertheless, they have cited the possibility of a change in the nature of the regime as an additional reason to support their approach, especially since Iraq's armaments are seen as important props for Saddam Hussein's regime."

            ~ House of Commons Library, 13 March 2003, Iraq: developments
               since UN Security Council Resolution 1441, Research Paper 03/22  
               Click Here for Full Text

   Likelihood of military confrontation, or forcible disarmament, leading to a regime change as per Sherman-Kent Scale: 75% give or take 12%.  This probability was derived by using the word "might" which is most similar to the Sherman-Kent Scale's "probable."  However, due to the fact that "might" has a much less probability than "probable," the probability of 0.63 will be used.


Assessment and Conclusion:  Military Confrontation/ Forcible Disarmament

     Military Confrontation/ Forcible Disarmament:  As noted above, the probability of a successful military confrontation and forcible disarmament of the Iraqi regime is as high 93%.  Thus, the probability 0.93 will be used.

     Regime Overthrow:  As noted above, the probability of regime overthrow as an effective tool for disarmament of the Iraqi regime is 0.93.  However, the probability of the military confrontation, or forcible disarmament, leading to a regime overthrow is much lower: 0.63.   

     Military Confrontation (without regime overthrow): 
This issue proved more difficult in that this option was not necessarily discussed within the Bush Administration.  As a result, no statements and/or documents were found to illustrate this option.  However, the probability of a military confrontation without a regime change would be equivalent to subtracting the probability of a military confrontation with a regime overthrow from 1.0.  Thus, the probability would be



Probabilities of the Effectiveness of Disarmament


(Probability = 0.0)
Containment and Overthrow
(Probability = 0.07)
Military Confrontation/ Forcible Disarmament
(Probability = .93)

         Positive               Rewards
(Probability = 0.0)    (Probability = 0.0)

             With               Without
       Inspections      Inspections
(Probability = 0.96) (Probability = 0.04)

        Regime                Military
      Overthrow         Confrontation

 (Probability = 0.63)   (Probability = 0.37)


   As demonstrated above using the rational-choice theory, the Bush and Blair Administrations used rational decisionmaking in order to reach the most effective tool for the disarmament of the Iraqi regime.  A careful consideration of the three prevailing options reveals that military confrontation and forcible disarmament along with eventual regime overthrow is the most viable.

   However, it is important to note that the rational-choice theory is flawed in that it does not require verification of the validity of the premise of the puzzle, in this case the given existing threat of weapons of mass destruction.  Due to the lack of intelligence and/or proof of existing weapons of mass destruction, rational decisionmaking should not have allowed the opportunity to proceed to the next step of analyzing choice and its consequences until verification of the premise has been achieved.

Selected Sources

     1 Janice Stein and Raymond Tanter, Rational Decisionmaking: Israel's Decisions, 1967. 
        (Columbus:  Ohio State University Press, 1980).

    2 Raymond Tanter, Rogue Regimes: Terrorism and Proliferation.  (New York:  St. Martin's Griffin,

    3  Center for the Study of Intelligence: Words of Estimative Probability

    4  National Strategy for Combating Terrorism.  February, 2003.   For full text, see:  CIA: National  

    5  Michael R. Gordon and General Bernard E. Trainor, The General's War.  (Canada:  Little, Brown & 
       Company, 1995).

    6  Sanctions, Inspection, and Containment: Viable Policy Options in Iraq.  By David Cortright, Alistair
        Millar, and George A. Lopez.

   7   Confrontation with Iraq