To Intervene or Not to Intervene?

I’ve not made a decision,” President Barack Obama told Judy Woodruff and Gwen Ifill of the PBS NewsHour. “I have gotten options from our military, had extensive discussions with my national security team.”

The president was answering a question about how he intends to proceed in response to an alleged chemical weapons attack on civilians by the regime of President Bashar al-Assad of Syria.

Well, no hurry. Peter Drucker liked to point out that effective executives make very few decisions, and ideally only after considerable thought and deliberation. This was something he saw epitomized in the management of Alfred Sloan at General Motors, as Drucker recounted in Adventures of a Bystander. “If a decision comes up to my level, it had better take a lot of time,” Sloan told Drucker.  “We make very few decisions, Mr. Drucker; no one can make many and make them right.

Drucker also stressed that a key part of making an effective decision is understanding what it’s fundamentally about. There are of course many contentious questions that could be raised concerning intervention in Syria—how the decision process should work, what role the legislative branch should play, what role humanitarian military actions should play in the world, to name just a few—but few are more fundamental than the simple question of what the decision to intervene is about.

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Some commentators say that taking military action against Syria is about how to preserve U.S. credibility.  Others say it is about how best to protect innocent civilians. Others say it is about how best to uphold international norms. So which is it?

The most important part of the effective decision is to ask: What is the decision really about?” Drucker wrote in Managing the Nonprofit Organization. “Very rarely is a decision about what it seems to be about. That’s usually a symptom.”

Drucker cited the example of a college that was forced to cut its programs in response to a budget crunch. Because the decision was seen as a financial one, it set off a civil war among the faculty over what to cut. What caused hostilities to subside was a board member who noted that the decision was in truth about whether to be a college that emphasized continuing education for adults or teaching the young. “Suddenly it became clear why people had been so hot under the collar,” Drucker wrote. “The decision was not about the budget but about the future of American higher education and the university’s role in it, and this is something on which good people should disagree.”

That is why Sloan stuck so doggedly to defining the decision at hand. Drucker recalled, “After every meeting, no matter how many he attended, [Sloan] wrote a letter or memorandum in which he identified the key question and asked, ‘Is this what the decision is all about?’”

What do you think Obama’s decision—to intervene in Syria or not—is fundamentally about?

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