Shadow Government

Has Obama Got the Psychology and the Kinetics in Sync in His Syria Strategy?

The psychological impact of a major foreign-policy move is generally felt right away even if the kinetic impact takes much longer. The tyrannical trio of geography, bureaucracy, and logistics means that even the most powerful leader in the world (the U.S. president) must wait -- sometimes many months -- before the actions he has ordered physically take effect. The psychological effects start much sooner, however, and so some of the benefit of a policy change can be realized in advance of the kinetics.

In a well-designed strategy, the psychological and kinetic effects work in tandem with the former multiplying the latter, perhaps even operating during the delay between decision/announcement and full implementation. In a poorly designed strategy, the psychological and kinetic effects are in tension, perhaps even canceling each other out.

This is Strategy 101, but it is often ignored when an administration is severely cross-pressured. I fear that is happening to Barack Obama's administration right now as it struggles to implement its recent change in policy regarding providing small arms to the Syrian rebels.

The president made his momentous decision last week, but even if the modest aid he has promised could be decisive in a kinetic sense, it will be some time before the arms actually arrive to change battle facts on the ground. Days after the White House announcement, Gen. Salim Idris, the military leader who will supposedly receive the help, was reported to be saying that he had not yet even been contacted about the aid. And nonlethal aid promised many months ago still has not been delivered, according to FP's The Cable.

These delays are not necessarily the product of bureaucratic foot-dragging. The delay in making the policy decision may well have been the result of foot-dragging from a bureaucracy and political administration reluctant to intervene, but implementation delays are just as often dictated by physics as by politics. It just takes time to get things done.

In the meantime, what is operating is any change in expectations that the decision engendered, perhaps resulting in a changed strategic calculus among the key actors. That is explicitly what the Obama administration is hoping for, since it has said that the new lethal aid is meant to send a signal of U.S. (and international) resolve to Bashar al-Assad's regime that the regime and its allies should heed.

Is that the likely psychological effect of the president's decision? Will Assad, Hezbollah, and Iran conclude from the decision to supply some small arms, which will arrive to influence tactical operations at some future date, that it marks a major commitment on the part of the United States? Judging from the way the administration made the announcement -- leaving it to the National Security Council's communications director to announce while the president was at a local photo-op -- most observers, including those quite sympathetic to the administration or to the policy of greater involvement in Syria, have inferred a message of irresolution and uncertain commitment. 

In short, the immediate psychological effects may well be undercutting rather than magnifying the eventual kinetic effects.

This is not the first time the Obama administration has run afoul of good strategic principles. Obama's Afghanistan surge was a textbook case of getting the psychology and the kinetics out of sync. The announcement of the artificial timeline for withdrawing the surge at the same time as announcing the surge itself meant that for the first several months the chief effect of the new policy was confusion about American resolve. The kinetic benefits of the additional troops were delayed many months as the military logistics chain slowly swung into action. I gather that the Obama White House was frustrated by the slow pace of delivering the surge troops -- doubly so since the delay came on the heels of months of delay during the strategic review itself -- but it was no more of a kinetic delay than that which beset the Iraq surge. The difference was that the psychological benefits of the Iraq surge kicked in right away because the Iraq surge strategy was well-designed and the two elements were synchronized. (One wonders whether Obama would have opted for the self-defeating arbitrary timeline in Afghanistan if he had fully understood how long it would take for the kinetic results to take effect.)

I fear the administration is making the same mistake again. And whereas the Afghanistan surge was at least in kinetic terms so substantial that it had a decent hope of overcoming the damage done by the imposition of the arbitrary timeline, the kinetic effect of the change in Syria policy is far less substantial. It will take a lot of hope for this change to produce a better outcome -- and there is very little time for it to do so.


Shadow Government

A New Look (Part 1)

Editor's Note: This guest post is the first in a series of three posts about the changing face of American foreign policy. They are based on ideas explored in a new book by Kim R. Holmes titled Rebound: Getting America Back to Great, to be published in November. Holmes served in George W. Bush's administration as assistant secretary of state for international organization affairs and is now a distinguished fellow at the Heritage Foundation.

For decades Americans have been deeply divided over foreign policy. Since the Vietnam War they have argued over everything from wars to nuclear weapons to the purposes of foreign aid. However, today changes are afoot. Conservatives like Sen. Rand Paul join liberals in denouncing the surveillance policies of the National Security Agency. "Neoconservative" Sen. John McCain condemns Paul as an "isolationist" and embraces liberal Samantha Power's appointment as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations. Spending on defense, once the sacred cow of national security conservatives, is dropping rapidly as a result of a bipartisan deal on sequestration.

Something new is going on here. Old battle lines are being redrawn as Americans deal with the challenges of a new world. It may be possible, for the first time in a very long time, to review fundamentally the country's foreign policy. If not a realignment of views, then at least a new look at U.S. foreign policy may be possible.

Until recently we had roughly three ways of looking at America's role in the world. As worldviews they have dominated the way U.S. foreign policy has been debated and even made. Let's take a look at them briefly before we examine how they are changing.

The first of these I call "pull back" -- as in significantly downsizing America's presence abroad. The main premise is that American foreign policy is too militaristic and overly involved in trying to control events overseas, particularly with military force. In academia, proponents include such people as Barry Posen at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, John Mearsheimer at the University of Chicago, and Andrew Bacevich at Boston University. In the political world its supporters range from Rep. Barney Frank on the left to Ron Paul on the right, and some libertarians. Think tanks likewise break down in this fashion, with the Center for American Progress on the left and the Cato Institute on the right. Their critics tend to label them as "isolationists," but in reality they don't want to withdraw completely from the world, but only to scale down dramatically America's military activities overseas.

The second framework can be called "retrenchment." This most closely resembles the foreign policy of President Barack Obama, who pays lip service to international idealism but who in practice is pragmatic and quite inward looking. The dominant theme is that American power is increasingly limited and must adjust with less interventionism and a smaller military footprint overseas. As the president said in a January interview with the New Republic, "I am more mindful probably than most of not only our incredible strengths and capabilities, but also our limitations." There is a rhetorical commitment to traditional American engagement and, in the war on terrorism, even a hawkish streak of unilateralism. However, in practice the main focus is domestic policy, or as Obama put it, to concentrate on "nation-building here at home."

A third is that of the conservative hawks. Sometimes called neoconservatives, they are the interventionists who believe that American power is being tested all over the world and any failure to respond sends a signal of weakness that adversaries will exploit. They possess a heavy streak of moralism, which is often deployed to justify military interventions. The Syrian civil war, for example, is decried as both a strategic threat to American interests and an offense to Americans' moral sensibilities. Adherents include many officials who served in George W. Bush's administration, some scholars at the American Enterprise Institute; opinion writers at the Weekly Standard, academics such Fouad Ajami of the Hoover Institution, and Max Boot of the Council on Foreign Relations. Their main political protagonists today are Senator McCain and Sen. Lindsey Graham.

I fully realize these categories are not all-inclusive. Scholars, experts, and even politicians have nuanced views that are impossible to pigeonhole. Moreover, some may disagree with my characterization of their views. However, my purpose is not to establish ironclad "schools of thought" but rather to provide a framework to explore how some of the views held by people in these groups are migrating, as it were, ideologically. Because of changing public opinion about wars and national security in general, the neatness of these categories is fraying at the edges, allowing for some rather unusual ideological bedfellows.

I will explore how this is happening in the next installment in this series. As we will see, these categories are fraying at the edges. It is not easy anymore to tell exactly who is liberal or conservative in foreign policy. Because of this there may be a chance for if not a full realignment of views -- that is probably not in the cards -- at least a "new look" that could present some interesting possibilities.