Foreign Policy Analysis Essay: Why did Obama authorise a troop surge in Afghanistan?


The purpose of this research is to examine the decision making process that led to Obama’s decision to authorise a troop surge in Afghanistan. The opinion of this research is that Obama authorised the troop surge because he wanted to eliminate Al Qaeda and the Taliban and stop these groups from using Afghanistan as a base to attack the US. This research will analyse in the following order: rational actor model, bureaucratic model and belief set to present a convincing explanation of the decision making of the troop surge. Ultimately, the research concluded that the belief set is the most significant factor of Obama’s decision making process. This research is important because there has been very little literature on the significance of Obama’s belief set in the decision making leading to the troop surge.


When elected as President, Obama had a range of issues to solve, one of which was the lingering fight with Al Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan, which is the longest war in American history. Eventually, Obama authorised a troop surge in Afghanistan because he wanted to eradicate Al Qaeda and stop them from using a sovereign country, such as Afghanistan, as a base to launch attacks on the US, like 9/11. There are three dimensions this research will explore in the following order; rational actor model, bureaucratic model and the belief set model. In each paragraph this research will provide a brief explanation of the model, apply the model to the case, discuss the advantages and disadvantages of each model and then compare and contrast each model. The findings of this research conclude that belief set is the most significant factor in explaining Obama’s decision making of the troop surge.


Rational Actor Model

The decision maker’s aim is to maximise their utilities (Alden and Aran, 2017, p. 29) and this is known as the rational actor model. Allison (1971, p. 30) further elucidates the rational actor model as a “value-maximising choice within specific constrains” in which the decision maker picks the option that produces the ramifications that is favoured. The troop surge can be seen in a rational actor dimension because Obama had four options. Option one: 85,000 troops, best for counter insurgency (Foxley, 2012, p. 11). Option two: McChrystals 40,000 troops request for his COIN strategy (Marsh, 2014, p.272). Option three: 30-35,000 troops which was a Secretary of Defence’s and Pentagon’s alternative (Hook, Ray & Scott, 2007, p.26). Lastly, option four: 20,000 special forces and trainers which was Biden’s solution to combat Al Qaeda (Foxley, 2013, p. 11). Eventually, Obama authorised option two but with only 30,000 troops as this was the best value maximising decision for the US in exterminating Al Qaeda and the Taliban and stopping them using Afghanistan as a base for an attack (Landler, 2017). The rational actor model has many advantages; for example it is “compatible with any set of structural assumptions about the environmental setting in which the actor is present” (Ogu, 2013, p. 97). Also, it provides a structure for “understanding human behaviour” (Becker, 1976, p.14). However, there are disadvantages for example, there may be insufficient information making it complicated for decision makers to make rational decisions (Ogu, 2013, p. 97). Furthermore, the model neglects the circumstance that these decisions are made as understanding the circumstances will enable us to decide if the decision was rational (Ogu, 2013, p. 98). When compared to the bureaucratic model, the rational actor model does not consider the influence of actors within a government (Clarke, 1989, p.38) as they can manipulate the decision making process. In addition, when compared to belief set, the rational actor model does not acknowledge Obama’s belief set, personality or perception (Clarke, 1989, p.38). Although the rational actor model is useful, this research believes that the bureaucratic model and more significantly, belief set, is better at explaining the troop surge.

Bureaucratic model

The collective administrative, such as a cabinet, make foreign policy decisions arguing its position of interests in order to frame the discussion and decision making to is advantage (Allison, 1971,p. 171) and usually the actors position is determined by their job (Miles, 1978, p.399) and this is called the bureaucratic model. The troop surge can be seen in a bureaucratic dimension with multiple actors arguing their position; however, this research will only discuss McChrystal, Mullen and Petraeus of the support side and Biden, Ekenberry, Emanuel of the opponent’s side. General McChrystal, the Afghanistan commander of US forces, advocated the most for a troop surge due to his bureaucratic role of trying to reach his objectives of peace and influence in the region which he believed would be achieved with additional troops (Marsh, 2014, p.275). Mullen, who was Joint Chief of Staff, served his bureaucratic interests of protecting the reputation of the army and defeat in Afghanistan would have threatened this (Marsh, 2014, p. 276) thus his support for a surge. Furthermore, General Petraeus, of Central Command, recommended Obama to approve McChrystal’s 40,000 troops request (Kornblut, Wilson & Deyoung, 2009) as Petraeus would have been assessed and held responsible for the end result of the war therefore Petraeus wanted success in Afghanistan (Marsh, 2014, p. 276) showing how he was influenced by his bureaucratic role. On the contrary, Vice President Biden wanted to preserve Obama’s autonomy of action therefore Biden tried to counter the surge sentiment which shows how Biden was fulfilling his bureaucratic role (Marsh, 2014, p. 277). In addition, Eikenberry, Ambassador to Afghanistan, was united in the bureaucratic operation of the State Department, of overseeing the diplomatic efforts in Afghanistan and Eikenberry made sure to counter the pro surge sentiment (Marsh, 2014, p. 277) showing how he was influenced by his bureaucratic position. Additionally, White House Chief of Staff Emanuel opposed the surge due to his bureaucratic position. Emanuel was concerned about Obama giving too much interest on Afghanistan (Mann, 2012, p. 135) and that the potential negative consequences of his troop surge will make it harder for Obama to implement policies in other areas, such as healthcare (Marsh, 2014, p. 278). This model provides a framework helping us explain why decisions were taken which is an advantage. However, the model ignores other roles like pressure groups and external forces (advisors) that could have influenced the decision making (Wagner, 1974, p.450 & Caldwell, 1977, p. 97). Additionally, the bureaucratic model does not consider components such as personality and life background that could have helped explain Obama’s decision (Art, 1973, p.486 & Kohl, 1975, p.4). Furthermore, it fails to consider the role of the leader (Rourke, 1972, p.432 & Perlmutter, 1974, p.90) and critics have argued that the model presumes that the president is equal to its cabinet however, the president can override any actor of the cabinet (Rosati, 1981, p. 246) showing how the president is not equal. Moreover, the model assumes governmental positions determine the actor’s policy (Krasner, 1972, p.165) however, Clinton was a surge supporter (Marsh, 2014, p. 276) even though this model would have assumed she was an opponent based on the office she holds (Secretary of State). When compared to the rational actor model, the bureaucratic model does not consider the ‘value maximising’ choice of a troop surge. When compared to the belief set, the bureaucratic model fails to take into consideration Obama’s belief that Al Qaeda was a threat to the US and only focuses on the actors within his government. Due to the short comings of the bureaucratic model, this research believes that belief set is better at explaining the troop surge decision.

Belief set

The role of belief set is the most significant factor in the decision making of Obama. A ‘belief set’ is a “set of images held by an individual about a particular (issue). This set of images acts as a screen, letting in information that fits the belief set and keeping out information that does not” (Neack, 2003, p.58).  The Obama troop surge can be seen in a ‘belief set’ dimension due to the following. Firstly, Obama says that the security of the American people is his greatest responsibility (Obama, 2016). Secondly, Obama argued that Al Qaeda was the greatest threat to the US (Obama, 2016) when he took office. Thirdly, he wanted to stop any terrorist organisation from attacking the US (Obama, 2016). Finally, Obama wanted to uphold American values and uphold the rule of law (Obama, 2016). The Afghanistan situation mirrored Obama’s belief set perfectly because the Taliban and Al Qaeda was still a threat to the US which in turn meant that Obama had to protect the US which fits into the first two points. Additionally, Al Qaeda was re-emerging as a threat again (Beauchamp, 2017) and the Taliban repressed the Afghan people’s rights which fit onto the third and fourth set of beliefs that Obama had. The Afghanistan troop surge fulfils all four sets of beliefs that Obama which is why it is the most significant factor in his decision making. The belief set model has many advantages for example; it provides simplicity for scholars to understand why a leader took a certain decision (Dunne, Hadfield & Smith, 2016, p.145). However, there are many disadvantages such as its failure to take into consideration state pressure, bureaucratic restrictions and extrinsic climate to supplement the individual analysis (Holsti, 1970, p. 27). Moreover, belief set does not address macro factors such as institution, environment, foreign agents (Lindblom, 1959, p. 80) that influence the decision making. When compared to the bureaucratic model, belief set does not consider actors within the government, that can heavily influence the decision making (Holsti, 1970, p.27). Furthermore, belief set does not acknowledge the circumstances that decisions are made, unlike the rational actor model (Alden et al, 2017). However, although the belief set has many drawbacks, ultimately this research believes this is the most significant factor in Obama’s troop surge because the troop surge in Afghanistan adheres to all of Obama’s belief therefore it was inevitable that Obama would have took action in Afghanistan.


To conclude, the goal of the Obama troop surge was to exterminate Al Qaeda and the Taliban and to stop them from using Afghanistan as a base to launch attacks on the US. The decision making process can be seen in three dimensions; rational actor model, bureaucratic model and belief set model. Looking at the troop surge at a rational actor dimension we can argue that sending 30,000 troops to Afghanistan was a value maximising decision by Obama because it would have helped claw back territory from the Taliban whilst stopping them from using Afghanistan as a base to launch attacks. However, due to the drawbacks of this model such as the neglecting influence from actors within a government the rational actor model cannot be the main reason for the troop surge. The bureaucratic model suggests that the decision to send 30,000 troops was due to actors within the administration of Obama with McChrystal, Mullen and Petraeus arguing for a troop surge and Biden, Ekenberry and Emanuel arguing against a troop surge.  The bureaucratic interests of these people can be argued was instrumental to the decision making of Obama. However, the lack of consideration of the individual such as personality and the ignorance of external factors means the bureaucratic model is weak in explaining the troop surge. This leads to the belief set being the most significant factor due to the following. Firstly, the security of the American people is Obama’s greatest responsibility. Secondly, Obama said Al Qaeda was the greatest threat to the US when he took office. Thirdly, Obama wanted to stop any terrorist organisation from attacking the US. Finally, Obama wanted to uphold American values and the rule of law. Obama’s belief set accumulated in Afghanistan hence a troop surge which is why this proposal believes it is the most significant factor. The classification of most sources meant this research was based on open sources which is a limitation I acknowledge. Had classified sources become declassified then the result of my research will have been more complete. Also, there was limited literature on Obama and his belief set which meant that this research had to rely on his speeches. But, most presidents use their speech as propaganda to further their own agenda which is why it is not a great source which is another limitation.



  • Alden, C. & Amnon, A. (2017). Foreign policy analysis: New approaches. 2nd New York: Routledge.
  • ALLISON, G. (1971). Essence of Decision: Explaining the Cuban Missile Crisis. Glenview: Scott Foresman and Company
  • Art, R. (1973). Bureaucratic Politics and Foreign Policy: A Critique. Policy Sciences, 4(4), pp. 467–90.
  • Beauchamp, Z. (2017). 16 years after 9/11, al-Qaeda is back. Vox. Available at: [Accessed 11 May 2018].
  • Becker, G. (1976). The Economic Approach to Human Behaviour. Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, pp. 3-14.
  • Caldwell, D. (1977) Bureaucratic Foreign Policy-Making. American Behavioural Scientist,21(1), pp. 87–110.
  • Clarke, M. (1989). ‘The foreign policy system: framework for analysis’, in Clarke, M. & White, B. Eds, Understanding Foreign Policy: The Foreign Policy Systems Approach. Aldershot: Elgar, pp.38
  • Dunne, T. Hadfield, A. & Smith, S. (2016). Foregin Policy. 3rd Oxford: Oxford University Press, pp. 131-195.
  • Foxley, T. (2013). Decision Making Course Paper Deciding the surge: Obama reinforces the war in Afghanistan. WordPress. Available at: [Accessed 21st April].
  • Holsti, O. (1970). The “Operational Code” Approach to the Study of Political Leaders: John Foster Dulles’ Philosophical and Instrumental Beliefs. Canadian Journal Of Political Science, 3(1), pp. 123-157.
  • Hook, S., Ray, J, and Scott, J. (2007). American Foreign Policy and Political Ambition and Us Foreign Policy Today: American Renewal?. Washington DC: CQ Press, p.26.
  • Kohl, W.L. (1975) The Nixon–Kissinger Foreign Policy System and US European Relations: Patterns of Policy Making. World Politics, 28(1), pp. 1–43.
  • Krasner, S. (1972). Are Bureaucracies Important? Or Allison Wonderland. Foreign Policy,       7(1), pp. 159–79.
  • Kornblut, A. Wilson, S. & Deyoung, K. (2009). Obama Pressed for Faster Surge; Afghan Review a Marathon. What was Interesting was the Metamorphosis. The Washington Post. Available at: [Accessed 4th May, 2018].
  • Landler, M. (2017). The Afghan War and the Evolution of Obama. Nytimescom. Available at: [Accessed 14th April].
  • Lindblom, C. (1959). ‘The science of muddling through’, Public Administration Review, 19(2), 79-88
  • Mann, J. (2012). The Obamians: The Struggle Inside The White House To Redefine American Power. New York: Penguin.
  • Marsh, K. (2014). Obama’s Surge: A Bureaucratic Politics Analysis of the Decision to Order a Troop Surge in the Afghanistan War. Foreign Policy Analysis, 10(3), pp. 265-288.
  • Miles, R.E. (1978). The Origin and Meaning of Miles’ Law. Public Administration Review,      38(1), pp. 399–403.
  • Neack, L. (2003). The new foreign policy. Lanham, Md: Rowman & Littlefield.
  • Obama, B. (2016). Remarks by the President on the Administration’s Approach to Counterterrorism. Available at: [Accessed 11 May 2018].
  • Ogu, M. (2013). Rational Choice Theory: Assumptions , Strenghts , and Greatest Weaknesses in Application Outside the Western Milieu Context. Nigerian Chapter Of Arabian Journal Of Business And Management Review, 1(3), pp. 90-99.
  • Perlmutter, A. (1974). The Presidential Political Center and Foreign Policy: A Critique of the Revisionist and Bureaucratic–Political Orientations. World Politics,27(1), pp.  87–106.
  • Rosati, J.A. (1981). Developing a Systematic Decision-Making Framework. World Politics,33 (1), 234–52.
  • Rourke, F.W. (1972). Review of Essence of Decision. Administrative Science Quarterly,17(1), pp. 431–3.
  • Wagner, R.H. (1974) Dissolving the State: Three Recent Perspectives on International Relations. International Organization,28 (3), 435–66.

Word count: 2607

Grade: 67 (2.1)